Ed­u­ca­tors de­scribe pres­sure to hike grades

PR. GE­ORGE’S FACES COR­RUP­TION PROBE Rais­ing grad­u­a­tion rates be­hind push, crit­ics say

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DONNA ST. GE­ORGE AND ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ

As Mary­land or­ders an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether grades were ma­nip­u­lated to drive up grad­u­a­tion rates in Prince Ge­orge’s County, em­ploy­ees at sev­eral of the dis­trict’s high schools say they have en­coun­tered signs of grade tam­per­ing and pres­sure to pass their stu­dents.

Eight em­ploy­ees, based in six of the county’s 22 high schools, de­scribed in in­ter­views with The Wash­ing­ton Post grad­ing in­ci­dents they found trou­bling af­ter al­le­ga­tions emerged of cor­rup­tion in the school sys­tem. Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) asked for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on June 25, and the state board of ed­u­ca­tion voted to pur­sue it two days later.

Prince Ge­orge’s school of­fi­cials deny that they en­gaged in any ef­fort to fraud­u­lently in­flate grad­u­a­tion rates, while those who made the al­le­ga­tions — a mi­nor­ity bloc on the 14-mem­ber county school board — say dozens of whistle­blow­ers have come for­ward with ev­i­dence.

Em­ploy­ees in­ter­viewed on the is­sue agreed to speak on the con­di­tion of anonymity, say­ing they feared re­tal­i­a­tion for speak­ing out. Sev­eral told of be­ing thwarted if they tried to fail a stu­dent, which they de­scribed as part of a larger push to raise on-time grad­u­a­tion rates.

“It’s a prob­lem we’ve been deal­ing with a few years now, but it has def­i­nitely got­ten worse,” one teacher said.

Kevin Maxwell, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the school sys­tem, has called al­le­ga­tions of sys­temic cor­rup­tion base­less and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. He and the school board’s ma­jor­ity said they wel­comed a state-or­dered re­view, say­ing it would put the is­sue to rest.

Maxwell has pointed to an ear­lier state in­ves­ti­ga­tion of grad­u­a­tion rates as ev­i­dence that the dis­trict does not have a prob­lem. But crit­ics have said that ex­am­i­na­tion was not suf­fi­ciently im­par­tial or broad, largely re­ly­ing on sev­eral hours of in­ter­views with Maxwell and four peo­ple he had a hand in se­lect­ing.

As the de­bate has in­ten­si­fied, some ed­u­ca­tors and other em­ploy­ees of­fered glimpses of what they see as the prob­lem.

One said he did ev­ery­thing he could this year to help a se­nior headed to­ward fail­ure — con­tact­ing par­ents, alert­ing a coun­selor and an ad­min­is­tra­tor and re­fer­ring him to a school in­ter­ven­tion

team. But lit­tle changed, so the teenager got an E — a fail­ing grade — in an English course re­quired for grad­u­a­tion.

A cou­ple weeks later, he said, he spot­ted the stu­dent in a cap and gown, col­lect­ing a diploma. How that hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery, he said. “It so­lid­i­fied what I’d heard about grades be­ing changed and that ad­min­is­tra­tors will do what­ever it takes to make sure they meet their grad­u­a­tion rates,” he said.

At an­other school, a teacher said two of her se­niors this year missed weeks of school, did not do as­sign­ments or make up work, and failed her course. But the prin­ci­pal en­cour­aged stu­dents and their fam­i­lies to ap­peal, she said, and their course grades were re­vised to a C and a D. She was told both grad­u­ated.

“For a child not to come to class — maybe been in class three days in a whole quar­ter — and you’re go­ing to change their grade?” she asked. “It’s not right. If they don’t come to school, and they don’t do the work, they de­serve to fail. It doesn’t help them.”

The teacher said she be­lieves such ap­peals and “re­cov­ery pack­ets” of work are “a front” for grad­ing changes that al­low stu­dents to grad­u­ate. She said the fo­cus is not only se­niors: “They do it for fresh­men, sopho­mores and ju­niors.” In all, she es­ti­mated grades were changed im­prop­erly for more than 10 of her stu­dents dur­ing the past few years.

At a third high school, an em­ployee with first­hand knowl­edge said grade-change forms are of­ten signed by the prin­ci­pal but not by teach­ers. The em­ployee said the forms are of­ten at­tached to aca­demic “pack­ets” de­signed to com­pen­sate for missed or failed work, but many of the pack­ets are only partly com­plete.

“I think it’s all a num­bers game,” the em­ployee said, al­leg­ing that more than 100 stu­dents at the school grad­u­ated with the help of such changes dur­ing the past four years.

Four-year grad­u­a­tion rates in Prince Ge­orge’s have jumped from 74.1 per­cent in 2013 to 81.4 per­cent in 2016 — lower than the state av­er­age of 87.6 per­cent but the largest gain for that pe­riod of any school sys­tem in Mary­land.

Maxwell has pointed to the progress as a sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ment since he was hired as schools chief in 2013.

In Fe­bru­ary, he and other top ad­min­is­tra­tors did a bus tour of the eight county high schools with a grad­u­a­tion rate of 90 per­cent or bet­ter. Stu­dents and staff cheered their suc­cess, with ban­ners cel­e­brat­ing them as part of the “90 Per­cent Club.”

Two years ear­lier, no Prince Ge­orge’s high school was at 90 per­cent.

School sys­tem of­fi­cials said they could not com­ment on ques­tions em­ploy­ees raised about grades with­out know­ing names of the stu­dents in­volved. But they said grad­u­a­tion rates have climbed in re­cent years as a re­sult of sev­eral ef­forts.

The dis­trict has worked with high school prin­ci­pals to set tar­gets for grad­u­a­tion rates, with in­creases of three to five per­cent­age points over three years, of­fi­cials said. They said the num­bers are goals, with no penal­ties or bonuses in­volved.

They also said stu­dent sup­port and in­ter­ven­tion have been im­proved through early-warn­ing sys­tems that iden­tify those at risk and a credit re­cov­ery pro­gram that gives fail­ing stu­dents an­other chance at learn­ing and boost­ing their grades so they can stay on track.

One teacher at a 90-per­cent school said that the day Maxwell and oth­ers ar­rived at her school, she and some of her col­leagues rolled their eyes.

“We knew that it wasn’t real,” she said. “It’s just com­mon knowl­edge that they push kids through who shouldn’t be pushed through.” She said she wor­ries about the mes­sage to younger sib­lings and stu­dents who show up and try hard. “Why should they con­tinue to work hard?” she asked. “Why should they come to school and lis­ten to their teach­ers about putting in max­i­mum ef­fort when you don’t have to?”

An­other long­time teacher said that in a cou­ple of cases, stu­dents have let her know they passed her class when she knew they failed. She had not signed a gradechange form, she said. “It’s ap­palling to me,” she said. “I’m not averse to help­ing a stu­dent pass. But when peo­ple are pres­sur­ing you to do it, when it hap­pens be­hind your back, that’s when it’s prob­lem­atic.”

At an­other county high school, a teacher said she once re­turned from a three-day leave that fell at the end of a mark­ing pe­riod to find that all of her stu­dents with fail­ing grades had been given 80 per­cent for the quar­ter. That was the thresh­old for a B, which she said they did not de­serve. She said she com­plained, to no avail. She said tam­per­ing needs to stop.

“Kids de­serve to get ed­u­cated,” she said. “You don’t give some­one a grade they didn’t earn.”

Prince Ge­orge’s high school prin­ci­pals dis­puted al­le­ga­tions of im­proper prac­tices, say­ing schools suc­ceed for rea­sons in­clud­ing a “laser­like fo­cus” on ninth-grade pro­mo­tion rates and grad­u­a­tion rates, and pro­grams that give learn­ers a sec­ond chance to mas­ter con­tent and earn credit.

“There’s noth­ing mag­i­cal about our meth­ods and no short­cuts to our suc­cess,” they said in a re­cent state­ment, voic­ing dis­may that at a time of pos­i­tive mo­men­tum, the school sys­tem was “again a ca­su­alty of un­fair, ugly scru­tiny.”

The credit re­cov­ery pro­gram in Prince Ge­orge’s, ex­panded and stan­dard­ized two to three years ago, is one fo­cus of scru­tiny. Some stu­dents may do “pack­ets” of work aligned to their course that can pro­vide ex­tra points on a quar­ter grade. An­other op­tion in­volves lessons that are largely on­line, said spe­cial projects of­fi­cer Jan­ice Briscoe.

Maxwell has said that a ma­jor­ity of Mary­land school sys­tems have credit re­cov­ery pro­grams, and that the dis­trict’s ef­forts in­tend to pro­vide stu­dents “mul­ti­ple path­ways” to suc­ceed­ing in school.

At Du­Val High School, a re­cent email The Post ob­tained shows that 14 days be­fore grad­u­a­tion this year, more than 140 se­niors still needed “one last in­ter­ven­tion.”

“If there is any last minute, (rub a ge­nie in a bot­tle), as­sis­tance you can help our fu­ture schol­ars, please as­sist, (yes, one more time)!” a coun­selor wrote.

Some saw the email as a sign of pres­sure to al­ter grades.

A school dis­trict spokes­woman said the email was sent by a mem­ber of Du­Val’s staff, in­tend­ing to make sure credit re­cov­ery op­tions had been of­fered to stu­dents.

Some par­ents have voiced con­cerns, too.

Vida Kelly of Lan­ham, a Du­Val mother, said it’s im­por­tant that stu­dents do the work and come away with a solid ed­u­ca­tion.

“Some­thing is go­ing on, and our kids are on the los­ing end,” she said. “My prayer is that with all of this ex­po­sure, it changes things for the bet­ter­ment of our chil­dren. They’re there to learn, not to just be given grades and pushed along.”

“There’s noth­ing mag­i­cal about our meth­ods and no short­cuts to our suc­cess.” Prince Ge­orge’s high school prin­ci­pals, in a state­ment

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