A List of Closed Charter Schools in Washington, DC

Quick: How many “public” charter schools have closed in Washington, DC?

Would you say five?

A dozen?

Maybe twenty?

Guess what: According to the board in charge of these things, it’s forty-six. Yes: 46!

Here is the list, in alphabetical order:

Academia Bilingue de la Communidad PCS
Academy for Renewal in Education PCS
Academy of Learning Through the Arts PCS
Arts and Technology PCS
Arts Explorer PCS
Auto Arts Academy PCS
Barbara Jordan PCS
Booker T. Washington PCS
Children’s Studio PCS
City Collegiate PCS
City Lights PCS
Colin L. Powell PCS – First Petition
Colin L. Powell PCS – Second Petition
Community Academy PCS Amos 1
Excel Academy PCS
High Road School and Alterative Learning Center PCS  [sic]
Hope Academy PCS
Hospitality High PCS
Howard Road Academy PCS
Imagine Southeast PCS
Jos-Arz PCS
Kamit Institute for Magnificent Achievers PCS
Marcus Garvey PCS
Mechanical Industrial Technical PCS
Meld Evenstart PCS
New School Enterprise and Development PCS
New Vistas PCS
Nia Community PCS
Options PCS
Phillips Academy PCS
Potomac Prepratory PCS
Richard Milburn PCS
Sasha Bruce PCS
Septima Clark PCS
SouthEast Academy PCS
Techworld PCS
The School for Arts in Learning PCS
Thea Bowman Preparatory Academy PCS
Tree of Life PCS
Tri-Community PCS
Village Learning Center PCS
Washington Academy PCS
World PCS
Xcelerate Insitute PCS
Young America Works PCS
Young Technocrats PCS

 

(To be clear: I am not counting certain schools that gave up on having, say, a middle school or a high school. However, I am counting schools that never opened at all, even though they had raised funds, wrote curricula, were approved by the board, hired staff, began enrolling students, but never actually got their act together to hold classes and teach students. This list also leaves out several schools where the founders were found to be using their institution mostly to enrich themselves illegally, and the charter was transferred to another institution.)

So much brilliant success! (Not.)

Given that nearly all of these schools had student bodies which were almost entirely black, Hispanic, and/or low-income, this makes me wonder: would we as a city tolerate this degree of failure and ineptitude if these charter schools were serving higher-income students and large percentages of white kids?

I don’t think so.

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Progress (or Not) for DC’s 8th Graders on the Math NAEP?

8th grade naep math, DC, w + H + B

Here we have the average scale scores on the math NAEP for 8th grade students in Washington, DC.* You will notice that we don’t have data for 8th grade white students in DC in math for the years 2003, 2007, and 2009, because there weren’t enough white students taking the test in those years for the statisticians at NCES to be confident in their data.

The vertical, dashed, red line near the middle of the graph represents the date when the old, elected, DC school board was replaced by Chancellors Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson, directly appointed by the various mayors. That year (2007) was also when Rhee and her underlings instituted brand-new teacher evaluation systems like IMPACT and VAM and new curricula and testing regimes known as Common Core, PARCC, and so on. Hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers were either fired or resigned or took early retirement. If these reforms had been as successful as Rhee promised in writing, then the lines representing scores for white, black, and hispanic students in DC would go slanting strongly up and to the right after that 2007 change.

I don’t see it.

Do you?

In fact, let’s look carefully at the slopes of the lines pre-Rheeform and post-Rheeform.

For black 8th grade students, scores went from 231 to 245 in the years 2000 to 2007, or 14 points in 7 years, which is a  rise of 2.0 points per year. After mayoral control, the scores for black students went from 245 to 257, or 12 points in 10 years. That’s rise of 1.2 points per year.

Worse, not better.

For Hispanic students, scores went from 236 in the year 2000 to 251 in 2007, a rise of 15 points in 7 years, or a rise of about 2.1 points per year. After mayoral control, their scores went from 251 to 263 in 10 years, which is a rise of 1.2 points per year.

Again: Worse, not better.

With the white students, a lot of data is missing, but I’ll compare what we have. Their scores went from 300 in year 2000 to 317 in the year 2005, which is an increase of 3.4 points per year. After mayoral control, their scores went from 319 in 2011 to 323, in 2017 or a rise of four (4!) points in 6 years, which works out to about 0.6 points per year.

Once again, Worse, not better.

Voters, you have the power to stop this nonsense, if you get organized!

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* Note that I’m using the numbers for Washington DC as a whole – which includes the regular DC Public School system, all the charter schools, as well as private (aka ‘independent’) and parochial schools. At one point, NAEP divided the DC scores into those for DCPS only (on the one hand) and for everybody else. In addition, they began to make it possible to separate out charter schools. However, since the regular public schools and the charter schools together educate the vast majority of students in DC, and the DCPS-only score-keeping started well after 2007, I decided to use the scores for all of DC because there was a much longer baseline of data, going back about twenty years.

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Here are my previous posts on this matter:

  1. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/just-how-much-success-has-there-been-with-the-reformista-drive-to-improve-scores-over-the-past-20-years/
  2. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/maybe-there-was-progress-with-hispanic-students-in-dc-and-elsewhere/
  3. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/progress-perhaps-with-8th-grade-white-students-in-dc-on-naep-after-mayoral-control/
  4. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/was-there-any-progress-in-8th-grade-math-on-the-naep-in-dc-or-elsewhere/
  5. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/one-area-with-a-bit-of-improvement-4th-grade-math-for-black-students-on-the-naep/
  6. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/more-flat-lines-4th-grade-reading-for-hispanic-and-white-students-dc-and-nationwide/
  7. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/17/the-one-area-where-some-dc-students-improved-under-mayoral-control-of-education/
  8. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/how-dcs-black-white-and-hispanic-students-compare-with-each-other-on-the-naep-over-the-past-20-years/
  9. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/comparing-dcs-4th-grade-white-black-and-hispanic-students-in-the-math-naep/
  10. https://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2018/04/20/dcs-black-hispanic-and-white-students-progress-on-the-naep-under-mayoral-control-and-before-8th-grade-reading/

One Area With A Bit of Improvement: 4th Grade Reading for Black Students on the NAEP

If you’ve been following this series, you’ve noticed that pretty much all of the trends for all subgroups in 8th grade math and reading have been flat — essentially no change after 20 years and billions of dollars of ill-spent money on ‘reforms’ that most teachers have found to be utterly worthless.

This graph, however, for 4th grade students in reading in DC and elsewhere, does show a little bit of improvement in DC only for the period 2013-now. However, there have also been drops. Mostly, there is not much change at all. But if you look very carefully you can see a small increase during that time period – just as there were small increases for DC’s hispanic students BEFORE mayoral control.

How good are your eyes?

4th grade math naep black students dc + elsewhere 1998-2017

 

EDIT: My bad: this was reading, not math. It’s fixed now, and I edited some of the text. GFB, 4/17/2018, 2:12 pm

Was There Any Progress in 8th Grade Math on the NAEP in DC or Elsewhere?

The answer is, basically, no.

You can see for yourself. This time I am posting a graph and table for average math NAEP scale scores for 8th graders who were black, Hispanic, or white. Honestly, they show that billions of dollars spent in dubious schemes such as having students spend an enormous fraction of the school year doing test prep, firing teachers based on students’ test scores (either their own students or those whom they’ve never met) and turning over much of our public educational system over to billionaires and profiteers — it’s all been a failure. Based on their own yardstick — test scores.

Here are the graphs. Read them and either weep or get determined to do something better about this ‘reformster’ charade.

8th grade math naep black students 1996-2017

8th grade math naep hispanic students 1996-2917

8th grade math Naep scores, white students, 1996-2017

Progress Perhaps With 8th Grade White Students in DC on NAEP After Mayoral Control?

I continue working my way through the various subgroups in DC and elsewhere, trying to see if the imposition of mayoral control back in 2007 has been a success or a failure. This post has to do with white (Caucasian) students in DC and elsewhere in the US.

What do you see:

8th grade reading, white students, naep, 1998-2017, dc and elsewhere

Here you will notice that the scores for European-American (white) students in DC are quite a bit higher than those of similar origins elsewhere in the US. For that, the explanation is relatively simple. Washington, DC is rather unique among large American cities in that virtually all of its white working class citizens moved out to the suburbs and later to the exurbs several decades ago. Even if white students in DC don’t live in luxury and wealth, a very large fraction of them have parents with graduate or professional degrees and more books around the house than the average American household — and so my own kids, who went through DCPS from K through 12, are and were quite different from the children of carpenters or mechanics that I grew up with in far Montgomery County, MD, sixty years ago. The reason that there are so many blanks in the table is that the number of white students in DC used to be so small that the statisticians at NCES could not draw valid conclusions. (My own kids graduated before 2000).

Again, this chart does not show any real signs of success for Mayoral control in DC, or for the entire ‘reform’ agenda which was supposed to revolutionize American education.

Why is it that we keep on testing?

The only actual impact it’s had has been to distort education in a top-down manner, and that’s not exactly a good thing, as Peter Greene points out at Curmudgucation.

A few excerpts, concerning the reasons we were given for all this testing, and how that excuse turned out:

Address Inequity

We would find where non-wealthy non-white student populations were being ill-served. Anyone who can’t figure that out without the BS Test is a dope. And as with the last point, the problem has been that the data hasn’t so much been used to find schools that need help as it has been used to find schools that are vulnerable and ready to be turned into somebody’s business opportunity. Instead of focusing our will to address educational inequity, test-based accountability has highlighted our lack of will (and wasted the good intentions of some folks).

Informing Instruction

Teachers were going to get their data spreadsheets and figure out, with laser-like precision, who they needed to change their instruction. But right off the bat it became clear that data about students in your class would only arrive long after the students had departed for their next classroom. Then the security issue reared its stupid head– I can see student scores, but I am forbidden to see the test itself. (For that matter, students who are so inclined are unable to see their specific results to ask “What exactly did I get wrong here?”) This means I can tell that Pat only got an okayish score, based on some questions that might have asked about something about reading that Pat apparently answered incorrectly. How can that inform my instruction? It can’t. It doesn’t. The BS Tests “inform instruction” mostly by encouraging teachers to spend more time on test prep. That’s not a good thing.

Letting Parents Know How Their Children Are Doing

Under this theory, parents have no idea how their children are doing in school until the BS Test results appear. Assuming for the moment that the parents are that disconnected, the information provided is minimal, scoring a few categories on a 1-3 or 1-4 scale. A BS Test provides very non-granular data, less nuanced than a report card– and based on just one test. There is nothing for parents to learn here.”

 

Even Big Edu-‘Reformers’ Can See That Their Plan Has Failed

I’m cutting and pasting one of Peter Greene’s latest columns:

AEI: Voiding the Choice Warrantee

Posted: 20 Mar 2018 11:38 AM PDT

The American Enterprise Institute has a new report  that calls into question one of the foundational fallacies of the entire reform movement. Think of it as the latest entry in the Reformster Apostasy movement.

Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research asks some important questions. We know they are important questions because some of us have been asking and answering them for twenty years.

Here are the key points as AEI lists them:

For the past 20 years, almost every major education reform has rested on a common assumption: Standardized test scores are an accurate and appropriate measure of success and failure.

This study is a meta-analysis on the effect that school choice has on educational attainment and shows that, at least for school choice programs, there is a weak relationship between impacts on test scores and later attainment outcomes.

Policymakers need to be much more humble in what they believe that test scores tell them about the performance of schools of choice: Test scores should not automatically occupy a privileged place over parental demand and satisfaction as short-term measures of school choice success or failure.

Yup. That’s just about it. The entire reformster movement is based on the premise that Big Standardized Test results are a reliable proxy for educational achievement. They are not. They never have been, and some of us have been saying so all along. Read Daniel Koretz’s book The Testing Charade: Pretending To Make Schools Better for a detailed look at how this has all gone wrong, but the short answer is that when you use narrow unvalidated badly designed tests to measure things they were never meant to measure, you end up with junk.

AEI is not the first reform outfit to question the BS Tests’ value. Jay Greene was beating this drum a year and a half ago:

But what if changing test scores does not regularly correspond with changing life outcomes?  What if schools can do things to change scores without actually changing lives?  What evidence do we actually have to support the assumption that changing test scores is a reliable indicator of changing later life outcomes?

Greene concluded that tests had no real connection to student later-in-life outcomes and were therefor not a useful tool for policy direction. Again, he was saying what teachers and other education professionals had been saying since the invention of dirt, but to no avail.

In fact, if you are of a Certain Age, you may well remember the authentic assessment movement, which declared that the only way to measure any student knowledge and skill was by having the student demonstrate something as close to the actual skill in question. IOW, if you want to see if the student can write an essay, have her write an essay. Authentic assessment frowned on multiple choice testing, because it involves a task that is not anything like any real skill we’re trying to teach. But ed reform and the cult of testing swept the authentic assessment movement away.

Really, AEI’s third paragraph of findings is weak sauce. “Policymakers should be much more humble” about test scores? No, they should be apologetic and remorseful that they ever foisted this tool on education and demanded it be attached to stern consequences, because in doing so the wrought a great deal of damage on US education. “Test scores should not automatically occupy a privileged place…”? No, test scores should automatically occupy a highly unprivileged place. They should be treated as junk unless and until someone can convincingly argue otherwise.

But I am reading into this report a wholesale rejection of the BS Test as a measure of student, teacher, or school success, and that’s not really what AEI is here to do. This paper is focused on school choice programs, and it sets out to void the warrantee on school choice as a policy.

Choice fans, up to and including education secretary Betsy DeVos, have pitched choice in terms of its positive effects on educational achievement. As DeVos claimed, the presence of choice will not even create choice schools that outperform public schools, but the public schools themselves will have their performance elevated. The reality, of course, is that it simply doesn’t happen.The research continues to mount that vouchers, choice, charters– none of them significantly move the needle on school achievement. And “educational achievement” and “school achievement” all really only mean one thing– test scores.

Choice was going to guarantee higher test scores. They have had years and years to raise test scores. They have failed. If charters and choice were going to usher in an era of test score awesomeness, we’d be there by now. We aren’t.

So what’s a reformster to do?

Simple. Announce that test scores don’t really matter. That’s this report.

There are several ways to read this report, depending on your level of cynicism. Take your pick.

Hardly cynical at all. Reformsters have finally realized what education professionals have known all along– that the BS Tests are a lousy measure of educational achievement. They, like others before them,  may be late to enlightenment, but at least they got there, so let’s welcome them and their newly-illuminated light epiphanic light bulbs.

Kind of Cynical. Reformsters are realizing that the BS Tests are hurting the efforts to market choice, and so they are trying to shed the test as a measure of choice success because it clearly isn’t working and they need reduce the damage to the choice brand being done.

Supremely Cynical. Reformsters always knew that the BS Test was a sham and a fraud, but it was useful for a while, just as Common Core was in its day. But just as Common Core was jettisoned as a strategic argument when it was no longer useful, the BS Test will now be tossed aside like a used-up Handi Wipe. The goal of free market corporate reformsters has always been to crack open the vast funding egg of public education and make it accessible to free marketeers with their education-flavored business models. Reformsters would have said that choice clears up your complexion and gives you a free pony if they thought it would sell the market based business model of schooling, and they’ll continue to say– or stop saying– anything as long as it helps break up public ed and makes the pieces available for corporate use.

Bottom line. Having failed to raise BS Test scores, some reformsters would now like to promote the entirely correct idea that BS Tests are terrible measures of school success, and so, hey, let’s judge choice programs some other way. I would add, hey, let’s judge ALL schools some other way, because BS Testing is the single most toxic legacy of modern ed reform.

Ten Years of Educational Reform in DC – Results: Total MathCounts Collapse for the Public AND Charter Schools

Just having finished helping to judge the first three rounds of the DC State-Level MathCounts competition, I have some sad news. NOT A SINGLE TEAM FROM ANY DC PUBLIC OR CHARTER SCHOOL PARTICIPATED. Two kids from Hardy MS were the only ones from any DC public or charter school.

I was in the judging room where all the answer sheets were handed in, and I and some engineers and mathematicians had volunteered to come in and score the answers.*

In past years, for example, when I was a math teacher and MathCounts coach at Alice Deal JHS/MS, the public schools often dominated the competitions. It wasn’t just my own teams, though — many students from other public schools, and later on, from DC’s charter schools, participated. (Many years, my team beat all of the others. Sometimes we didn’t, but we were always quite competitive, and I have a lot of trophies.)

While a few public or charter schools did field full or partial teams on the previous “chapter” level of competition last month, this time, at the “state” level I am sad to report that there were none at all. (Including Deal. =-{ )

That’s what ten years of Education ‘Reform’ has brought to DC public and charter schools.

Such excellence! a bunch of rot.

In addition to the facts that

  • one-third of last year’s DCPS senior class had so many unexcused class absences that they shouldn’t have graduated at all;
  • officials simply lied about massive attendance and truancy problems;
  • officials are finally beginning to investigate massive enrollment frauds at desirable DC public schools
  • DCPS hid enormous amounts of cheating by ADULTS on the SAT-9 NCLB test after Rhee twisted each principal’s arm to produce higher scores or else.
  • the punishment of pretty much any student misbehavior in class has been forbidden;
  • large number of actual suspensions were in fact hidden;
  • there is a massive turnover of teachers and school administrators – a revolving door as enormous percentages of teachers break down and quit mid-year (in both public and charter schools);
  • there isfraudulent manipulation of waiting lists;
  • these frauds are probably also true at some or all of charter schools, but nobody is investigating them at all because they don’t have to share data and the ‘state’ agency hides what they do get;
  • DC still has the largest black-white standardized test-score gap in the nation;
  • DC is still attempting to implement a developmentally-inappropriate “common core” curriculum funded by Bill Gates and written by a handful of know-it-alls who had never taught;
  • Rhee and Henderson fired or forced out massive numbers of African-American teachers, often lying about the reasons;
  • they implemented a now-many-times-discredited“value-added method” of determining the supposed worth of teachers and administrators, and used that to terminate many of them;
  • they also closed  dozens of public schools in poor, black neighborhoods.

Yes, fourth-grade NAEP national math and reading scores have continued to rise – but they were rising at just about that exact same rate from 2000 through 2007, that is to say, BEFORE mayoral control of schools and the appointment of that mistress of lies, fraud, and false accusations: Michelle Rhee.

So what I saw today at the DC ‘state’-wide competition is just one example of how to destroy public education.

When we will we go back to having an elected school board, and begin having a rational, integrated, high-quality public educational system in DC?

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* Fortunately, we didn’t have to produce the answers ourselves! Those questions are really HARD! We adults, all mathematically quite proficient, had fun trying to solve a few of them when we had some down time — and marveled at the idea of sixth, seventh, or eighth graders solving them at all! (If you are curious, you can see previous year’s MathCounts questions here.)

DC’s Education ‘Reformers’ Have No More Morals or Ethics Than Trump and his Mafia Cronies

I’m not going to list all the ways that the Trump organization caters to foreign dictators, launders money for corrupt kleptocrats, lies about how they are ‘for the American worker’ while giving enormous tax breaks to American billionaires, and so on.

But let’s list some of the ways that DC’s education ‘Reformers’ (starting with Michelle Rhee) have lied and defrauded the citizens, students, teachers and other staff in Washington, DC.

Latest: Brand-new Chancellor Antwan Wilson pulls strings with the Deputy Mayor of Education for DC (Jenny Niles) so that he can transfer his kid from Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Woodrow Wilson SHS. Niles is caught red-handed and is forced to resign. (One difference: Donald Trump never resigns, never admits fault under any circumstances, no matter how obviously guilty he is)

[edit: Of course, this is not the first time that DC has seen such string-pulling to bypass the supposedly fair lottery system: there were similar scandals just last year. I guess the difference was that this time, someone resigned (or was forced to), and it was the Chancellor who was the personal beneficiary of the change. Last year, nobody resigned, and it was the Chancellor who was pulling those strings for other high-ranking DC officials.]

Before that: All of the DC education brass, including previous Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee, as well as current mayor Bowser keep patting themselves on the back for supposedly having the fastest-improving school system in the nation, with dramatic reductions in suspensions and increases in graduation rates.

Later the facts came out: many of the students who misbehaved were put out of school and told not to return until their parents came in for a conferencer, but were not officially listed as suspended. So, the numbers of official suspensions went down, but the actual suspensions didn’t.

(From my own position as a retired teacher, I do think that there are times that a student must, in fact, be removed from a classroom until he/she calms down, makes restitution, has a conference with administrators and parents, or some such event. Schools that basically forbid a teacher ever to send a child out of the classroom for misbehavior are schools where chaos will reign. And I have seen such schools, both charters and regular public schools, here in DC. I have heard from teachers at schools that were pressured to reduce suspensions (e.g. one or more of the KIPP schools) that you then have kids roaming the halls.)

Also: news recently came out that enormous numbers of graduating seniors in DCPS had so many unexcused absences that they could not have passed even a single one of their courses. Massive fraud was imposed on the schools because teachers were forced to give nearly every single student a passing grade, even though on any given day, perhaps only 20% of the students enrolled in any given course were actually present. The truancy rate is mind-boggling, and actually has been getting worse since Rhee took power.

Let’s also recall that Michelle Rhee’s resume was full of lies, most a complete fabrication, from her completely fabricated 90-13-90-90 statistics from Baltimore in the mid-1990s, to her nonexistent glowing writeups in the Wall Street Journal.  She also illegally fired hundreds of DC teachers and lied about the reasons. She lied when she claimed that the teachers’ union prevented her from giving grants to teachers for supervised after-school study sessions. She essentialy forced all of her principals to promise to reach nearly-impossible-to-reach goals on test scores, without providing them with extra resources like counsellors, social workers, bilingual teachers, or anything else. Principals took the strong hint and held ‘eraser parties’ where they erased wrong answers on answer sheets, and bubbled in the correct answers with #2 pencils. Quite a few ended up winning large bonuses. Former Noyes principal Wayne Ryan, who was apparently the most prolific organizer of this sort of cheating, got promoted to deputy chancellor for instruction.

[Edit: after USA printed a series of hard-hitting articles outlining the fraud, an outside commercial firm (A&M) with no expertise in cheating on tests was brought in and whitewashed whatever they could. Controls were tightened up to prevent cheating, and guess what: the schools where evidence showed that staff had erased and fixed the largest number of answers — saw the largest drops back to test levels more in line with what they were obtaining before the cheat-fest.]

Of course, when the news came out of how he had won those awards, instead of being publically repudiated and terminated, Ryan was quietly allowed to resign. And so did Rhee.

Of course, Rhee wasn’t so quiet. She claimed she was going to raise billions of dollars from millions of citizens and set up a “reform” organization to fight against teacher unions and so on. Her organization raised a few million from a few billionaires, but quietly went out of business.

[edit: Also recall that Rhee and Henderson signed an agreement committing themselves to truly astonishing numerical growth goals in education in DC. The other partners to this set of promises were foundations set up by a handful of billionaires such as the Broad Walton, and Arnold foundations (I see that my link to the original document has died, and I am not sure to find it any more). Inspired by information compiled by my former colleague Erich Martel, I wrote a long series of articles examining how well R&H did. They didn’t score a zero, as you might expect. I found that their score was 2.8%. Yes, they failed to reach 97.2% of their goals. But they didn’t quit in shame over that; nor did the press even mention it. ] 

 

More on the DC Education Frauds

This article appeared in Education Week, which is behind a paywall, so I’m pasting it here. In case you haven’t been watching, just about all of the supposed improvements in DC’s publicly-funded education sector have either been:

(a) continuations of trends begun before Mayor Fenty took control of DC Public Schools in 2007 and appointed Michelle Rhee Chancellor; or

(b) the result of changing demographics (more white kids, more black kids from relatively-affluent families, and fewer kids from highly-poverty-stricken families; or

(c) simply the result of fraud.

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NEWS

D.C.’s Scandal and the Nationwide Problem of Fudging Graduation Numbers

Edweek.org

The headlines made a big splash, and yet they were strangely familiar: Another school system was reporting a higher graduation rate than it deserved.

The most recent scandal-in the District of Columbia-is just the latest example in a growing case file of school systems where investigators have uncovered bogus graduation-rate practices.

Those revelations have unleashed a wave of questions about the pressures and incentives built into U.S. high schools, and fueled nagging doubts that states’ rising high school graduation rates-and the country’s current all-time-high rate of 84 percent-aren’t what they seem.

The newest round of reflections was triggered by an investigation, ordered by the D.C. mayor’s office, that found that 34 percent of last year’s senior class got diplomas even though they’d missed too much school to earn passing grades, or acquired too many credits through quick, online courses known as credit recovery. Only three months earlier, the school system touted a 20-point rise in its graduation rate over the last six years.

“It’s been devastating,” said Cathy Reilly, the executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, a group that focuses on high school issues in the District of Columbia. “It’s made people here feel that our graduation rate gains weren’t real.”

A National Problem

Such revelations are hardly confined to the nation’s capital. In the last few years, a federal audit found that California and Alabama inflated their graduation rates by counting students they shouldn’t have counted. News media investigations showed that educators persuaded low-performing students in Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., to transfer to private or alternative schools to eliminate a drag on their home schools’ graduation rates.

See AlsoThe D.C. Public School Attendance Scandal: Where’s the Outrage? (Commentary)The drumbeat of graduation-rate fudging has opened the door to renewed attacks on the pressures imposed on schools by accountability rules, particularly the high stakes that some systems attach to specific metrics. In the District of Columbia, for instance, high school teachers and principals are evaluated in part on their schools’ graduation rates.

With those kinds of stakes, teachers can feel immense pressure to award passing grades to students who haven’t earned them, a dilemma that intensifies in schools with high rates of chronic absenteeism and academically struggling students.

In a survey of 616 District of Columbia teachers conducted after the scandal broke, 47 percent said they’d felt pressured or coerced into giving grades that didn’t accurately reflect what students had learned. Among high school teachers, that number rose to 60 percent. More than 2 in 10 said that their student grades or attendance data had been changed by someone else after teachers submitted them.

Scott Goldstein oversaw the survey as the founder of EmpowerEd, a year-old coalition of D.C. teachers that works to strengthen teacher leadership. To him, the results cry out for a new conversation about the “moral dilemmas” embedded in accountability systems that rely heavily on just a few metrics, like graduation rates.

“If you pass students [who haven’t completed course requirements], you’re leading them into a world they’re unprepared for. But if you fail them, you’re harming their lives in other ways,” said Goldstein, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. Teachers’ decisions should rest on a professional appraisal of student mastery, not on fear for their own jobs, he said.

Pressure From the Top

Pressure to Graduate: Perspectives From Educators … read moreEven in school systems that don’t reward or penalize educators for their schools’ accountability metrics, teachers can feel immense pressure from administrators on their grading practices.

In postings on social media, Education Week asked high school teachers if they’d ever felt pressure to give passing grades to students who hadn’t done the work.

“Never mind high school. I feel that pressure in 3rd grade,” said Annie, an elementary school teacher in central Virginia. She asked Education Week not to identify her so she could discuss sensitive issues.

She said her principal has cautioned her not to fail any student or recommend that they repeat a grade because she “doesn’t want anyone to feel bad about not succeeding.” When she gave a student a D recently, she was summoned to a meeting with the principal, Annie said.

“She was upset. She said, ‘Why didn’t you work harder to get the student to turn in missing work, or re-do work?’ She sees a D as a teacher’s failure. But I think it’s a disservice to kids to give them grades they haven’t earned.”

John R. Tibbetts, who teaches economics at Worth County High School in rural Sylvester, Ga., and is the state’s 2018 teacher of the year, said his district’s policy doesn’t include course-failure rates in teachers’ evaluations. But his principal recently sent teachers an email conveying word from their superintendent that “failure rates … will be taken into consideration” in their evaluations anyway.

A Change of Approach

Tibbetts said he would like to replace that “threatening” posture with a more collaborative one.

“If the superintendent is concerned with course-failure or graduation rates, what we really need is for him to have a conversation with teachers about what we need to do to improve, what policies we can implement,” he said.

Education advocates who believe accountability can be a force for good worry that graduation-rate scandals could tarnish a tool that’s important for shining a light on inequities and applying pressure for school improvement.

They hope, instead, that uncovering problems can spark a rebalancing of the pressures and supports built into accountability systems, and change school practice to respond better to issues like students’ poor academic skills and chronic absenteeism.

“We shouldn’t stop paying attention to high school grad rates, or not have them in accountability systems,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which works with states to raise academic expectations.

“The right response to all of this is to double down on efforts to support students, and to support teachers, early and consistently, so they’re not pressured to game the system and they can give kids what they need.”

Experts who study and track graduation rates acknowledge that in some places, the rates are inflated by cheating or inaccurate reporting. But they contend that those cases account for a tiny share of schools overall. Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who studies graduation rates, estimates that those cases account for 2 to 4 percentage points in the national graduation rate.

‘Hard-Earned Gains’ Are Real

John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, a think tank that examines graduation rates for the annual “Grad Nation” reports, said his team has visited dozens of schools to find out what they’re doing to produce significant gains in their graduation rates.

In a few places, he said, he and his colleagues have had to shave 2 to 4 percentage points off the rates districts were reporting because they were improperly counting some types of students who shouldn’t be included, such as those who started home schooling in their junior year of high school.

But with few exceptions, Bridgeland said, his team has found that “the hard work” of better instruction and student support explains higher graduation rates.

“We need to call out the problems when gaming or cheating appears,” he said. “But at the same time, taking isolated examples of gaming the system and saying that high school grad rates are not real diminishes and undermines the many schools, districts, and states that have hard-earned gains and clear progress to showcase,” he said.

Those who study graduation-rate calculations point out that while they’re still imperfect, they’ve been much more reliable since 2008 when federal regulations began requiring all schools to calculate them the same way-the portion of each freshman class that earns regular diplomas four years later.

Balfanz said that more stringent calculation and reporting requirements “without a doubt” have been responsible for a very real rise in states’ graduation rates.

“People don’t remember the bad days before 2008, when schools were allowed to measure graduation rates however they wanted,” he said. “Kids dropped out, schools would code them as ‘whereabouts unknown,’ not as a dropout. No one knew, and no one cared. That wasn’t a good place. Accountability makes schools pay attention to a key outcome, like graduating our kids from high school.”

But even those experts acknowledge that there are still too many hidden variations in the way states report graduation-rate data. To get a more accurate understanding of schools’ graduation rates, they’ve quietly identified about a dozen variations that should be ferreted out and handled in uniform ways.

For example, even though federal rules don’t allow states to count summer graduates, or those who earn high school equivalency certificates, some still do. Some schools include summer graduates, or students in juvenile justice facilities. Others include teenagers who “transfer” into home schooling late in high school.

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