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Report: 60 percent of graduates sampled in Md. school system excessively absent

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More than 60 percent of graduates in a Maryland school system had excessive unexcused absences in one or more required courses last school year, according to a random review of records — a problem that could have kept them from getting a diploma.

A new analysis by state-hired investigators found that officials in Prince George’s County did not widely enforce attendance rules for the Class of 2018, even as they worked to shore up grading and transcript practices in the aftermath of a diploma scandal in Maryland’s second-largest school system, the report said.

More than 650 students in a random sample of 1,085 racked up more unexcused absences than school system rules allowed. The findings could be expected to hold true across the larger Class of 2018, which included 7,273 students, the report said.

Strict adherence to procedures “would have resulted in each of these students failing core courses, and most likely being ineligible to graduate,” the report said.

Monica Goldson, interim chief executive for the school system, attributed some attendance issues to problems in data collection and electronic record-keeping practices, which the report discussed in detail.

But Goldson also said there was a gap between procedure and practice. “We had practices that were taking place in our schools that were not aligned to administrative procedures,” Goldson said in an interview.

Goldson pledged that the school system would focus on the issue and work to make improvements.

Prince George’s has rewritten attendance procedures for this school year, she noted. Last year, middle- and high school students could fail a course for having more than five unexcused absences in a semester — or 10 in a year. But the new rule — which Goldson said was made after examining practices in other school systems — is less strict.

Now, students with unexcused absences get a zero for the day in classes they skip, and any assignments marked with a zero are averaged in with other grades. For students who are absent routinely, “those zeros will add up,” Goldson said, and a student could be at risk of failing a course.

“We want our kids in school every single day,” she said.

The new report examined attendance issues more closely than a previous report. The Maryland State Board of Education addressed it briefly at a Tuesday meeting, with the board saying it would invite Prince George’s school system officials to appear at a January meeting to discuss the findings.

Much of the report showed that Prince George’s had made progress in taking action on problems documented by investigators. It said school officials had “greatly reduced the degree to which grade changes were used and misused.”

The school system also “nearly eliminated” issues related to graduating students who have not met transcript requirements or community service obligations. It made progress in increasing awareness of the district’s procedures and the state’s requirements.

Of 40 recommendations for improvement, the school system implemented 28 changes and 10 others were partly done, while two were outstanding, the report said.

“I think we need to give credit where credit is due,” State Board of Education President Justin Hartings said. “The fact that they have taken this close a look at this district . . . and found so much better practice, I think, is very positive. It’s likely that there’s more work to be done but the progress that’s been made, I think, is clearly identifiable.”

Hartings said he remained concerned about attendance. “That’s a lot of absences, and it seems to me that the district has a question to answer, which is do they need to change what their standard is, or are they going to start enforcing what their policy says they will enforce?” he said.

The new report recommended that procedures be tightened, that school officials do more training and monitoring, and that they conduct an audit to ensure the validity and quality of attendance data. It also recommended tighter practices surrounding the district’s electronic record-keeping system.

Edward Burroughs III, a school board member who helped bring allegations of inflated graduation rates to public attention in 2017, said he was glad to hear that the report showed progress and that the school system eliminated issues with graduating ineligible students.

“We believe if we hold students to a standard, they are capable enough to rise to achieve that standard,” he said.

But Burroughs said he found the data on absences disturbing.

“We need to have an equal focus and make sure that our students show up to school, because if our students are not in school they cannot learn,” he said. “And in the end, a diploma means nothing if students are not learning.”