The Associated Press‘s Ashraf Khalil explains: “As recently as a year ago, the public school system in the nation’s capital was being hailed as a shining example of successful urban education reform and a template for districts across the country. Now…. after a series of rapid-fire scandals including one about rigged graduation rates, Washington’s school system has gone from a point of pride to perhaps the largest public embarrassment of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tenure… A decade after a restructuring that stripped the decision-making powers of the board of education and placed the system under mayoral control, city schools in 2017 were boasting rising test scores and a record graduation rate for high schools of 73 percent, compared with 53 percent in 2011… Then everything unraveled.”
Teachers jobs were threatened if they didn’t raise test scores and increase graduation rates by passing students no matter what. Money was an incentive, with bonuses rewarding successful teachers. The Washington Post revealed that last year, while the district bragged about declining suspension rates, the reports were a fake. Many high schools were suspending students without documentation.
Then an investigation by Washington, D.C.’s NPR station WAMU, uncovered that Ballou High School had been covering up massive student absences. Many students had been chronically absent and missed so many days of classes that mandatory course failure should have followed. But teachers failed to mark students absent, and students who were failing classes were being allowed to complete inadequate credit recovery projects so that they would pass courses and be allowed to graduate.
A district-wide investigation into practices during the 2016-2017 school year revealed that the problem wasn’t just at Ballou, but had spread district-wide. Khalil reports that, “about half of those Ballou graduates had missed more than three months of school and should not have graduated due to chronic truancy. A subsequent inquiry revealed a systemwide culture that pressured teachers to favor graduation rates over all else—with salaries and job security tied to specific metrics. The internal investigation concluded that more than one-third of the 2017 graduating class should not have received diplomas due to truancy or improper steps taken by teachers or administrators to cover the absences. In one egregious example, investigators found that attendance records at Dunbar High School had been altered 4,000 times to mark absent students as present. The school system is now being investigated by both the FBI and the U.S. Education Department.”
The school district responded this past winter by tightening attendance monitoring and enforcing course requirements. In April of this year, the Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reported that, “Fewer than half of the seniors in the District’s traditional public school system are on track to receive their diplomas in June…. The city released a first batch of data in February, which showed that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools were on track to graduate, while 19 percent were considered ‘moderately off track.'”
Last week Stein updated the story, reporting that 60 percent of seniors earned diplomas on time this month: “The school system said this week that 415 students who were considered ‘moderately off track’ in April received their diplomas in June. Forty students who were ‘significantly off track’ graduated… Many of the off-track students enrolled in credit-recovery courses to graduate on time.” She adds that some students are likely to graduate after completing summer school.
Stein tracks the graduation rates by student demographics and finds them to be predictable and unfortunate: “At Banneker High, a selective-application school, 99 percent of seniors graduated this month—the highest rate in the District. The lowest rates belonged to Anacostia (42 percent), Coolidge (44 percent) and Ballou (45 percent).
In a puzzling development, Stein reports: “The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week allowing high school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class to receive their diplomas by discounting absences from the first three quarters of the school year.” The members of the Council are reported to have reasoned that students shouldn’t be held accountable for attendance rules that were tightened only after the graduation crisis was discovered. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is not supportive of the emergency law, but she has not yet made a choice to sign or not to sign it. Stein added : “But Bowser, whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect, has said she opposes it. She said last week she is considering her options, and her office said Wednesday there is no update on her decision.” If the law is signed, students will receive their diplomas late, as commencement exercises have already taken place.
What has been occurring in the D.C. public schools in recent years—allowing students to miss so much school they become chronically absent and hiding the fact that they are not in school—assigning short and easy credit recovery projects when students are failing classes—has been driven by promises to make the D.C. Public Schools a model. Michelle Rhee set up a system to pressure teachers and school administrators to by threatening to fire those who failed and paying merit bonuses to those who can make themselves look successful. In a new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz explains why making graduation rates the primary measure of success, will taint the process and undermine the results. Koretz writes about Campbell’s Law, a well known principle in the social sciences: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (The Testing Charade, p. 38)
When Michelle Rhee had been the leader of the D.C. Public Schools for several years, John Merrow, now retired from the PBS NewsHour, documented a major test score cheating scandal driven by Rhee’s demand that teachers raise test scores and her techniques for getting scores to rise: making teachers’ and principals’ evaluations, hiring and firing, and merit bonuses depend on educators’ capacity to raise scores. Later under former Chancellor Kaya Henderson, rising graduation rates became a second primary metric. Koretz explains how Campbell’s law actually works: “(W)hen you hold people accountable using a numeric measure—vehicle emissions, scores on a test, whatever—two things generally happen: they do things you don’t want them to do, and the measure itself becomes inflated, painting too optimistic a view of whatever it is that the system is designed to improve.”(The Testing Charade, p. 38) Koretz elaborates: “(Y)ou can take Campbell’s Law to the bank. It’s going to show up in any high-pressure accountability system that is based only on a few hard numbers.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 46-47)
Koretz predicts the consequences of the kind of school reform Michelle Rhee brought to Washington, D.C.: cheating, lowering standards—what has happened in the D.C. graduation scandal, and excluding people with bad numbers—what may have happened in the D.C. schools when suspension rates were fudged.