Staff Editorial: City must protect against further graduation fraud

This chart from D.C. Public Schools shows the system's steadily increasing four-year graduation rate. Charter schools have also seen progress since 2011. (image courtesy of D.C. government)

A high school diploma is an invaluable achievement for a student coming from a struggling background. It’s official documentation that the graduate has met established standards, both by succeeding academically and by committing to an education with reliable school attendance.

Except when it’s not.

Such has been the case at Ballou High School in Southeast, as we’ve learned from the tenacious reporting of WAMU and NPR. There, administrators sought desperately to achieve a glowing statistic: a graduation rate of 100 percent. In doing so, the radio stations revealed, Ballou sent too many of its students into the world with only a piece of paper — not the preparation for higher education or the workforce that the diploma is supposed to represent.

The District has worthwhile graduation requirements. Students must pass courses in an array of subjects, and a passing grade depends on both academic performance and class attendance. Under D.C. Public Schools policy, students fail a course if they’re absent over 30 times.

At Ballou, enforcement of these requirements was tossed aside. Administrators circumvented graduation requirements by pressuring teachers to provide makeup assignments for a semester of missed work, by funneling students into “credit recovery” courses and, in some cases, by simply ignoring the reality in front of them. Students didn’t even have to attend the credit recovery sessions to receive their diploma.

According to the radio investigation, just 57 of Ballou’s 164 graduates in 2016-17 were on track to graduate by the spring. While some students may have managed legitimate turnarounds, every indication suggests that many did not. Teachers reported that some graduates could barely read or write, and 20 percent had skipped more days than they attended.

To be clear, we don’t fault the students. Even those with academic interest and potential were thwarted by a system at Ballou that disconnected effort from results. Rather, the fault lies with Ballou administrators who apparently perpetrated this shameful fraud, and with D.C. education officials who never questioned it. They deprived Ballou’s students of an education, and left the reputation of a Ballou diploma in tatters.

We accept that educating struggling youths is a challenge. Educators not only need to impart academic lessons, but also to nurture students at risk of dropping out. But while a degree of flexibility is appropriate, administrators at Ballou evidently focused on the graduation rate they desired — not on how best to serve the people entrusted to their care.

We would like to see District education officials formally review graduation data at all public D.C. high schools to protect against any similar malfeasance, particularly in cases of sudden improvements such as Ballou’s. Furthermore, although “teaching to the test” is already rightly lambasted, some form of a proficiency exam — along with stricter enforcement of existing standards, such as attendance requirements — might also prove part of the solution. Lastly, praise and penalties for teachers and administrators must be based on more factors than on-paper performance, to lessen the temptation to game the system at students’ expense.