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A graduation crisis in D.C. brings questions of ethics to the fore

One-third of the district's 2017 graduating class was found to have attendance and/or credit violations. Observers say the problem goes beyond D.C., and suggest that more support is needed for struggling students and educators who grade and promote them.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
At Cardozo Education Campus, a combined middle and high school in Washington, D.C.,100 percent of the students are considered to be economically disadvantaged. A new report examining high school graduation practices in D.C. indicates that 39.7 percent of the school's 2017 graduates had records that reflected policy violations.

It seemed to be such a good-news story, one the nation was eager to celebrate: All the seniors at Ballou High School in the District of Columbia – despite poverty and other obstacles – walked across the stage and received their diplomas last spring.

But as the high school graduation rate keeps hitting new highs in the United States, it appears now that the rush to celebrate, in some cases, has masked a culture of passing seniors by any means necessary.

At Ballou, that meant allowing kids to pass classes despite chronic absences – with about half the seniors missing more than 60 days – and offering short credit-recovery classes before they failed the regular course, all in violation of district policy, WAMU and NPR reported in late November. 

Now, an outside evaluation of the D.C. school district has shown such violations were widespread. But D.C.’s is far from the only school system that should examine itself, education experts say.

Gray areas around attendance and credit recovery are fairly common, and that can cause confusion or can be exploited. It can also make it difficult to separate genuine improvements in graduation from gains that merely look good on paper.

The big question: At what point does a desire to help struggling students get through high school cross the line into unethical shortcuts, potentially setting them up for longer-term failure?

A desire to bolster trust

Underlying the scrutiny is a deep desire by many stakeholders to bolster trust – trust among students, parents, and teachers; trust between educators and administrators; and trust in public education itself.

The push to boost graduation nationally over the past 10 years “has been a net positive,” says Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. But the D.C. story reveals a “double-edged sword: Once something becomes part of accountability … on the margins there’s always some book-cooking,” he says. “On the other hand, without accountability there’s motivation to ignore it.” Before federal and state monitoring of graduation rates, people often found ways to not count students as dropouts when they stopped showing up to high school.

The final report on the District of Columbia Public Schools, released Jan. 29, showed that records for 937 graduates, one-third of the class of 2017, indicated their schools paved the way by violating attendance and/or credit policies. (The investigation did not include the city’s many charter schools.) Violations were more frequent at the schools serving the largest concentrations of high-needs students, such as those living in poverty or with disabilities. 

Antwan Wilson, one year into his job as chancellor of DCPS, has placed several people on leave and acknowledged the need to address complex factors that unduly pressured many educators – including contradictory policies, insufficient training and records-management systems, and incentives to meet aggressive graduation goals.

Beyond D.C., governors should put “measures in place to tell cheaters from honest brokers” when it comes to graduation data, suggests Nat Malkus, an education policy scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

Chicago is one of relatively few school districts that has independent researchers verifying graduation improvements. “We don’t see any evidence of watering down the curriculum,” says Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. “Students are more prepared than ever before … and [have] better college outcomes.”

In D.C., the school-choice landscape has meant that many families access exam schools and charters, leaving a higher concentration of students with the greatest challenges in certain district schools that don’t receive enough support, some observers say.

“I’m all for students being held accountable to a standard… But this got started because principals were trying to help kids navigate a broken system,” including high rates of childhood homelessness and trauma, says Mark Hecker, executive director of the nonprofit Reach Incorporated.

His group supports struggling high school students while they work as reading tutors for younger kids. “The way you engage the most challenging kids is through relationships,” Mr. Hecker says. “There needs to be someone [in the school] that is going to notice if that kid is not there that day, which [requires] transformative investments.”

Behind the absence numbers, Hecker adds, each student’s story is different. Some may be way behind academically, while others have managed, despite all odds, to go on to community college and, so far, succeed.

Climate change 

A growing number of school districts have begun to use chronic absenteeism data as an early warning sign, and to forge community-wide partnerships to help nip it in the bud. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser launched an “Every Day Counts!” attendance campaign last year to start down that path.

To make deep changes, DCPS also needs to collaborate with teachers and move away from “a climate of fear cultivated over the past 10 years,” says Washington Teachers’ Union president Elizabeth Davis. Sixty percent of the roughly 75 high school teachers who responded to a recent WTU/EmpowerEd survey said they had felt pressured by a school administrator to change a grade or pass a student who didn’t meet expectations. Teacher turnover rates are high. 

Ms. Davis says she’s optimistic because Chancellor Wilson has already begun listening to teachers. He also announced he’ll create an ombudsman position to provide a faster channel for complaints. 

In addition, Wilson’s office is meeting with current seniors, training high school staff, auditing transcripts, setting up a process to revise policies, and planning resource fairs to address families’ needs. 

“We want to make sure that our students are loved, that they are challenged and they are prepared,” Wilson said during a Jan. 29 press conference. (The district provided a video of the press conference in response to the Monitor's request for an interview.) “We want to make sure,” he said, “that everyone knows that we will hold our students to the highest expectations and support our educators.”

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