In D.C., 34 Percent Of Graduates Received A Diploma Against District Policy

Jan 29, 2018
Originally published on January 31, 2018 10:22 pm

More than 900 students in Washington D.C.'s public high schools graduated last year against district policy. That's according to a new report Monday from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent.

The comprehensive report was ordered by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in December, just days after WAMU and NPR published an investigative story looking into how students at Ballou High School were able to graduate last year despite missing months of school. "We are tremendously disappointed," Bowser said about the findings at a news conference Monday.

Investigators analyzed citywide attendance and graduation records. Policy violations were found in 937 of 2,758 graduating students' records:

  • Credit recovery (accelerated coursework) was used inappropriately at most high schools.
  • High schools rarely followed district attendance policies.
  • Central Office did not support schools or provide sufficient oversight on most policy violations.
  • Most DCPS high schools exhibited a culture of passing and graduating students.

This news comes about a week after the chief of D.C.'s secondary schools, Jane Spence, was removed from her post. All high school and middle school principals in the district reported to her and she is, so far, the highest-ranking official to be placed on administrative leave following the WAMU/NPR investigation.

The school district also says it has permanently removed Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves and placed on leave the vice principal in charge of seniors at Ballou last year.

And Monday, district leaders announced that the principal of another neighborhood school, Dunbar High School, was placed on administrative leave after investigators found 4,000 changes were made to 118 attendance records after they were filed by teachers.

Investigators found that a lack of support from Central Office contributed to many of the systemwide policy violations. Training, communication and system monitoring were all inadequate.

All of this casts a shadow over the school district's graduation rate, which had jumped 20 percentage points since 2011, and reinforces the findings of a recent survey of more than 600 public school teachers in the District, which showed that teachers all across D.C. feel pressure from administrators to change grades and attendance records. That survey was conducted by the Washington Teachers Union and the teacher group EmpowerEd.

"What has been uncovered in both public and charter schools is a culture of fear," said Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis about the survey. "Perverse incentives, high-stakes tests and a highly subjective performance evaluation system drive principals and teachers to do not what is best for students, but what makes our schools look good on a narrow set of indicators."

Most of the high school teachers who responded said their school required them to do extra documentation and additional interventions if they wanted to fail a student. Many educators said they got the message from school administrators that if they didn't pass enough students, it would negatively affect their evaluations.

Going forward

In the same survey, teachers also said they want to work with the D.C. Public Schools' chancellor, Antwan Wilson, who is relatively new to the District, "to shift the school culture from fear, deceit and mistrust to true partnership focused on fixing, in a collaborative manner, the serious problems raised in the survey."

Wilson has said the system will establish an ombudsman to address school-level issues and provide a way for teachers to voice concerns about their schools.

"I think it's important they understand if they feel they're being asked to do something against their better judgment ... that we have a process where they can do that separate from our grievance process," Wilson said.

At the news conference Monday, Wilson outlined major policy changes and efforts the District will make, urgently, to ensure that "the class of 2018 gets the support it needs," including an overhaul to the grading policy later this school year.

Since publishing our initial investigation, we have found this story playing out in schools across the country. We have heard from teachers in Vermont, West Virginia, Illinois, Maryland, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, Wyoming, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It's clear that schools everywhere are promoting and graduating underprepared and chronically absent students by pressuring teachers and using shortcuts.

Acacia Squires, editor at NPR Ed, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.


There's another story that a lot of people here in Washington are talking about today. A new report says 1 in 3 students who graduated from Washington, D.C.'s, public schools last year did not meet the requirements for graduation. The city's mayor requested the report after NPR and member station WAMU investigated graduation rates at one D.C. high school. Our reporters found that many students there had graduated unprepared and having missed months of class. Here's WAMU's Kate McGee.

KATE MCGEE, BYLINE: More than 900 students graduated last year even though they missed too much class or were improperly placed in makeup classes.


MURIEL BOWSER: This is indeed tough news to deliver but very necessary in order that we right the ship.

MCGEE: That's D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser who broke down the report's findings. It describes a larger culture where teachers are pressured to pass students to meet extremely high graduation goals. And it places much of the blame on D.C. Public School Central Office. There were failures at every level, from communication and oversight to unclear grading and attendance policies. Since WAMU and NPR's initial report, four district employees have been removed from their positions, three school administrators and the head of secondary schools.


BOWSER: What I hope is that people are trying to do right by kids. Unfortunately, they did the wrong things. And so that is - that's what we're addressing.

MCGEE: At a monthly breakfast with the mayor and D.C. Council this morning, city lawmakers expressed dismay in the findings. Councilmember Mary Cheh says for too long, there's too much focus on improving numbers and that let students fall through the cracks.


MARY CHEH: We cannot be graduating students who are functionally illiterate and we are. And no one here can sit and tell me that we are not.

MCGEE: The mayor and D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who was new to the district last year, laid out a list of solutions to address policy and compliance issues - a new grading policy, more training for teachers and principals and a review of each current senior's transcript, among others. But some teachers say those recommendations are just the first step. History teacher Scott Goldstein started a local teacher group called EmpowerEd. He says after compliance comes even tougher issues like the fact that most students in D.C. live in poverty.

SCOTT GOLDSTEIN: What we have to move onto now is what are the systemic issues that underlie the attendance and the low proficiency of our students? These aren't new challenges.

MCGEE: As the city and school system focus on solutions, Councilmember Elissa Silverman said the city's public school system has damaged its reputation.


ELISSA SILVERMAN: What is really devastating about this report is that it impacts the credibility of a DCPS diploma.

MCGEE: Teachers say they're worried about that image, too. But more than that, they're worried about their students. And we've heard that from teachers across the country. After our initial report, many reached out to us to say this is happening in districts where they are too. For NPR News, I'm Kate McGee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.