The first part of the investigation into graduation rates at D.C.’s Ballou High School is due as soon as Friday, according to a copy of the contract obtained by WAMU. But some city officials say the contract requirements don’t fully investigate the issue districtwide, renewing calls for an independent investigation.
The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent contracted with the private auditing company Alvarez & Marsal to review the Southeast D.C. high school’s compliance with attendance and graduation policies, possible grade manipulation, and the implementation of credit recovery programs, a commonly used program to give students who failed a graduation requirement a second chance to pass the course.
The investigation comes after a WAMU report that dozens of students graduated from Ballou despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU has spoken with more than a dozen current and former teachers at the school who say they felt pressure to pass unprepared students, especially those who were chronically absent. Records reviewed by WAMU show some seniors were placed in after-school credit recovery courses while they were simultaneously enrolled in the same course during the day, a violation of district policy.
The contract instructs the company to “interview a sampling of individuals that may provide perspective and information regarding the allegations of student grade manipulation to alter/increase promotion and graduation rates.”
It also calls for a review of a sample of graduation transcripts from other DCPS high schools, but not a complete review. Some city officials don’t think a sample of transcripts goes far enough.
“The scope of this audit or investigation is entirely too narrow to sufficiently diagnose the real problems we’re seeing at Ballou, and, I’m positive, at other schools in DCPS system and perhaps in the charter schools,” said Council member Robert White (D-At Large).
White and some members of the State Board of Education continue to call for an independent investigation of graduation rates at all public and charter high schools. Charter schools are not mentioned in the contract.
“Teachers are under a lot of pressure in a lot of different ways to inflate grades, to promote kids, and to graduate kids,” said Ruth Wattenberg who represents Ward 3 on the State Board of Education. “And we have to really get to the bottom of that. What are the sources of that? How is that playing out? And I worry a lot about whether that can be adequately uncovered through an internal review.”
After WJLA, the local ABC affiliate, reported on the contract, State Board of Education Member Markus Batchelor tweeted in support of an independent review:
In an interview with WAMU, Batchelor expanded on that frustration.
“I thought this was an opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves more broadly and say, you know, after 10 years of school reform, after all the policies we‘ve passed, let’s just make sure they’re working and working for every student,” he said. “I think this signals to me that there was really no interest in doing that with any fidelity.”
A final report on the investigation of DCPS high schools is due on Jan. 26.
Council member White said based on the details in the contract, he predicts there will be no conclusive evidence of any inappropriate influence at Ballou.
“Absent some email or some document from a person in a position of authority directing a teacher to pass a student who had not met the qualifications than its going to be difficult with such a small sample and quick investigation to reach any conclusive evidence of wrongdoing,” White said. “And I don’t think that we will be in any different a situation than where we are now.”