The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are D.C. public schools cooking the books?

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh. (Michael S. Williamson)

In last week's column on the attendance and graduation scandal at Ballou High School, I suggested that D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson might have a system-wide problem on his hands. How little we knew.

The full extent of the infractions wasn't known until an interim report on an investigation commissioned by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education was released this week. It revealed that:

●More than 1 one of every 10 students given a diploma from a D.C. public high school last year missed more than half of the school days.

●Three-quarters of the 2,307 graduates across the system missed at least 10 percent of the school days.

●Teachers feel pressured to push chronically absent seniors to graduate.

●Excessive passing rates for absent students were discovered not only at Ballou High School, the initial focus of the investigation, but also across the city, specifically at Anacostia, Eastern, Woodson and Roosevelt High Schools.

A statement Wednesday by Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) noted that the state superintendent's report also showed that more than a third of Wilson High School graduates "did not meet attendance requirements to graduate per DCPS policy." Cheh declared there is "systemic pressure to push students through the system" and accused D.C. Public Schools of "cooking the books or not following their own policies."

It's worth noting that on Dec. 15, a month before the release of the state superintendent's report, Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) held a hearing on student absenteeism and truancy at Ballou. Grosso, the council's education committee chairman, concluded that Ballou did not create its "present-day dilemma." He chalked up the problem to Ballou's having to operate in an inherited public education system "that is based in segregation in the District of Columbia." Grosso concluded that the situation cannot be adequately addressed "if we do not start to have a public, honest conversation about institutional racism in our public schools."

After reading this week's state superintendent's report, Grosso's tune changed somewhat. He called the results "extremely troubling," and said that the report "tells a much more harrowing tale." And Grosso's evidence of "institutional racism in our public schools"? Maybe that comes later.

Wilson said the results "disappointed" him, noting that more than 60 percent of students graduated with excessive absences. "We are in the process of trying to understand what's behind some of the numbers there," Wilson said.

Some of us are trying to understand how today's D.C. public school system functions. For example: Wilson, in response to the report, said that teachers have lacked proper instruction on grading and that he's going to institute system-wide training.

What's that?

I have at my desk an Aug. 6, 2016, DCPS letter to parents and legal guardians that describes the new 68-page grading policy for grades 6 to 12 implemented in June 2015, specifically designed to hold students in all DCPS schools to the same standards and expectations. The policy wasn't universally well received, but to suggest that teachers were ignorant of the policy and how it is supposed to work reflects poorly on the District's education leaders.

Wilson's office ignored attempts by some teachers to alert him and other city leaders about troubles at Ballou before the school's grading problems hit the news. He now promises to appoint an ombudsman to field staff complaints. Another ombudsman? There already is an ombudsman established by the D.C. State Board of Education.

Wilson is treating the scandal as a big misunderstanding that can be fixed with "training." Contrast that with Cheh's assertion that DCPS officials are being "protected" from accountability for "cooking the books," or lying and cheating to produce false results. Which is it?

How will parents and other D.C. taxpayers learn the truth?

The public school system's food chain and hierarchy (schools chancellor, deputy mayor for education, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, elected D.C. State Board of Education, D.C. Council Committee on Education) were blissfully in the dark about Ballou High School's problems until an in-depth investigation by WAMU and NPR hit the airwaves late last year.

The magnitude of chronically absent students graduating grew on the watch of the mayor, council and education bureaucracy. The problem is systemic indeed.

Read more from Colbert King's archive.

Read more on this topic:

Colbert I. King: D.C. is degrading the value of a school diploma

Antwan Wilson: My vision for D.C. Public Schools

The Post's View: This high school graduation won widespread praise. Was it a fraud?

Darryl Robinson: I went to some of D.C.'s best schools. I was still unprepared for college.