DCPS Graduation Scandal

by Stacy Ham


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In June 2017, Ballou High School in D.C. (“Ballou”) was praised for getting each senior student to graduate.[i] Three months ago, that praise turned into criticism after NPR and WAMU 88.5 conducted an investigation of Ballou’s attendance records. The investigation found that half of the high school’s graduates missed at least three months of school in one year.[ii] Out of the 164 students that graduated in 2017 at Ballou, only fifty-seven were actually attending and passing courses in accordance with the school district’s policy. In other words, only about one-third of the graduates should have been allowed to graduate.[iii]

The article gained wide publicity and sparked deep concerns about chronic absenteeism, administrators pressuring teachers to pass students, and grade manipulation. Soon after, Mayor Bowser ordered a system-wide audit of all D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) high schools.[iv] The report revealed a systemic collapse, as schools across the city were rarely following attendance-related grading policies with little to no accountability from DCPS Central Office.[v] In fact, if all high schools had followed the DCPS attendance and grading policy, 34% of the 2,758 graduates in 2017 would not have graduated.[vi] In a written statement, previous Chancellor of DCPS Antwan Wilson, who has recently resigned over an unrelated scandal,[vii] explained that the issue was “particularly acute at Anacostia, Ballou, Dunbar, Eastern, Roosevelt, and H.D. Woodson High Schools,”[viii] six of the nine DCPS high schools.[ix] In a city where over three-fourths of students are economically disadvantaged,[x] schools should be doing their part to ensure students graduate because of their academic success, instead of perpetuating failed systems that hurt students in poverty.

In response, the Chancellor at the time removed the principal of Ballou, and the FBI has opened an investigation.[xi] DCPS administrators will inevitably begin clamping down on enforcing the attendance policy mid-year due to the increased publicity and oversight from DCPS Central Office. However, sudden enforcement of this policy may have harsh consequences for the class of 2018.

First, the attendance policy needs to be clarified and enforced in a consistent manner. Pursuant to D.C. Code § 38-781.02(b)(2),[xii] the DCPS attendance policy states that “a student with thirty or more unexcused absences in a course within a full school year shall receive a failing final grade in that course with a resulting loss of course credit.”[xiii] In addition, the DCPS attendance policy includes that a student “must be present 80% of the day to be counted as ‘legally present.’”[xiv] These two provisions raise questions on how absences are calculated. It could mean that a student who arrives tardy to his or her second class of the day (out of five) is absent for over eighty percent of the day. If the student arrives tardy in this way over thirty times within a school year, the student could automatically fail the year.

A more lenient interpretation may have the student only fail the classes for which he or she was absent, which will more accurately reflect the student’s academic progress. The current phrasing of the policy overly punishes students who have attended class more than their attendance record indicates. Also, it is more practical and administrable to eliminate the eighty percent-rule and to have each absence and tardy counted class-by-class rather than the entire school day. This amendment more closely follows the language in the attendance policy in which a student who is absent over thirty times “in a course . . . shall receive a failing final grade in that course . . .”[xv] Notwithstanding, DCPS needs to clarify the language of the attendance policy so that all DCPS high schools can enforce it uniformly and consistently.

Additionally, DCPS’s decision to start enforcing the policy in the middle of the school year can have detrimental implications, particularly for this year’s senior class. Re-calculating students’ absences to adhere properly to DCPS policy may mean students who have already missed 30 days (however that is determined) during the first half of the school year will fail, requiring them to repeat the grade. While schools should ensure that each graduate has completed all the proper requirements to obtain a high school diploma, it is unfair to fail students for the entire year without proper notice, since the school district was not previously enforcing the written policy. Moreover, if DCPS designates that a student has already failed in the first half of the year, there is no incentive for the student to return to class for the remainder of the school year. DCPS needs to develop appropriate transition policies for these students so that sudden enforcement of the law will not encourage absenteeism and hurt them more.

Following the system-wide audit, the Office of Superintendent of Education (OSSE) stated that DCPS ought to “reconcile policies intended to provide students with multiple opportunities to pass with attendance-related grading requirements,” including make-up work and student support plans.[xvi] Additionally, DCPS should implement credit recovery programs, academic planning services, and extra support for students who have already exceeded thirty absences for this school year. Failing them in the middle of the school year due to these absences sends the wrong message to these students and leads to harmful and unnecessary outcomes. While students should be encouraged to go to school, students’ academic progress should be determined by their work, not how many days they are present as the two are not always correlated. Mass grade retention and/or increased dropout rates could have greater consequences across the city. DCPS must not inadvertently punish students for the administration’s failure to provide an appropriate education for so many students who are already disadvantaged when schools are supposed to be an avenue to break the cycle of poverty. DCPS should address and resolve these issues quickly and appropriately so that all students can obtain a quality education and graduate on time.

[i] Acacia Squires & Kate McGee, Every Senior At This Struggling High School Was Accepted to College, NPR (June 29, 2017, 12:45 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/29/524357071/every-senior-at-this-struggling-high-school-was-accepted-to-college.

[ii] Kate Mcgee, What Really Happened at The School Where Every Graduate Got Into College, NPR (Nov. 28, 2017, 4:49 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/11/28/564054556/what-really-happened-at-the-school-where-every-senior-got-into-college.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Derrick Ward, DC Council Holds Public Roundtable on Ballou High School Graduation Scandal, NBC Wash. (Dec. 15, 2017, 5:41 PM), https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/DC-Council-to-Hold-Hearing-on-Grade-Manipulation-Scandal-Ballou-graduation-high-school-464357913.html.

[v] Alvarez & Marsal, Final Report District of Columbia Public Schools Audit and Investigation, Off. of Superintendent Educ. 3 (2018), https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/release_content/attachments/Report%20on%20DCPS%20Graduation%20and%20Attendance%20Outcomes%20-%20Alvarez%26Marsal.pdf.

[vi] Id. at 4.

[vii] In the wake of the graduation scandal, Antwan Wilson has recently resigned after it was revealed that he bypassed the city’s competitive lottery system to transfer his daughter to a high-performing school. Perry Stein, Peter Jamison, & Fenit Nirappil, D.C. Public Schools leader to resign after skirting school assignment rules, Wash. Post (Feb. 20, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-public-schools-leader-to-resign-after-skirting-school-assignment-rules/2018/02/20/9b372230-1662-11e8-92c9-376b4fe57ff7_story.html.

[viii] Audit: More than a third of DC Public Schools graduates failed to meet graduation requirements, Fox 5 News (Jan. 29, 2018, 6:16 PM), http://www.fox5dc.com/news/local-news/audit-more-than-a-third-of-dc-public-schools-students-failed-to-meet-graduation-requirements.

[ix] D.C. Pub. Schs., High School Boundary Map, https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/Attendance%20Zones%20for%20Neighborhood%20High%20Schools.pdf (last visited Mar. 8, 2018).

[x] D.C. Pub. Schs., DCPS at a Glance: Enrollment, https://dcps.dc.gov/page/dcps-glance-enrollment (last visited Mar. 8, 2018).

[xi] Julia Airey, Ballou High School Principal Reassigned Amid Graduation Scandal, Wash. Times (Dec. 5, 2018), https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/dec/5/yetunde-reeves-principal-of-ballou-high-school-los/; Perry Stein, D.C. Superintendent of Education Says Her Office is Cooperating with Federal Probe, Wash. Post (Feb. 8, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/dc-superintendent-of-education-says-her-office-is-cooperating-with-federal-probe/2018/02/08/cd0ffa26-0d06-11e8-8b0d-891602206fb7_story.html.

[xii] D.C. Code § 38-781.02(b)(2) (2018).

[xiii] D.C. Pub. Schs., SY 2015–2016 DCPS Secondary School Grading and Reporting Policy 26 (June 20, 2015), https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/DCPS%20Grading%20and%20Reporting%20Policy-Final%20070615.pdf.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id. (emphasis added).

[xvi] Alvarez & Marsal, supra note 5, at 35.