A scathing report on graduation practices in the District of Columbia public schools highlights the massive struggle some educators wage with students’ chronic absenteeism, and the rules they sometimes break because of it.
Released this week, the study shows that 34 percent of the 2,758 students who graduated from D.C. high schools in 2017 got those diplomas only because teachers violated district rules or policies, giving the students unearned stamps of approval.
The city commissioned the study in the wake of an investigation by Washington public radio station WAMU, showing that one D.C. school, Ballou High, graduated many students who’d been chronically absent from class. The district has pulled Ballou’s principal and vice principal from their jobs.
A study released last month focused on practices at Ballou; the new one expanded the investigation and found similar problems districtwide. As it was being finalized, the district removed its chief of secondary schools from her position. The district has pledged to better enforce policy, and institute new centralized controls to monitor whether graduation requirements are being met.
“This is indeed tough news to deliver, but very necessary to right the ship,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said when the study was released.
Two types of rule-breaking emerged as central in the study of D.C.'s graduation practices: awarding passing grades to students who had missed too much school to earn those grades, and misusing credit recovery programs to award course credit.
District policy specifies that credit recovery should be used only when students have failed a course, but many D.C. schools were allowing students to earn credits in those programs at the same time as they were taking the course.
The district’s absenteeism policy requires teachers to lower a student’s grade after five unexcused absences per term, and fail them after 10. More than 30 unexcused absences during the year requires a failing grade and loss of credit for the course. Those grading policies were “rarely followed” in D.C. schools, the report found.
Teachers told the researchers that policies were unclear and contradictory. They cited a heavy burden of documentation that’s necessary if they wanted to fail a student. They reported feeling pressure from administrators to pass students so their school’s graduation rate wouldn’t suffer in accountabilty reports. They had their own evaluations on the line, too: teachers in D.C. are evaluated in part on their students’ success.
All of this created a “culture in which passing and graduating students is expected, sometimes in contradiction to standards of academic rigor and integrity,” the report concludes.
Teachers also cited compassion as a reason for failing fewer students than was required by district rules.
“Teachers stated that deviations from [district] policies were influenced by institutional expectations ... to increase graduation rates and by empathy for student circumstances” that make regular attendance difficult, such as homelessness, work and child-care responsibilities, and being involved in the court system, the study said.
That portion of the report pointed up some agonizing choices many educators face when students miss a lot of class. At what point have they gone too far in offering second chances to students? How do they balance the pressures to help their schools look good with the responsibility to report accurately on students’ progress? Teachers across the country shared those pressures in Facebook comments about the report.
Chronic absenteeism is a problem that dogs districts nationwide. Seven million children in the United States are considered to be chronically absent, which federal officials define as missing 15 days of school per year. At 11 percent of the nation’s schools, though, the problem is more intense: 30 percent of students lose 15 or more days of school to excused and unexcused absences and suspensions, according to an analysis by Attendance Works. The organization reported that one-quarter of U.S. high schools struggle with “extreme chronic absence.”
No surprise: Researchers have found that absence affects learning. Studies have found that absenteeism correlates with the likelihood of lower test course and higher course-failure rates.
The way districts count attendance often obscures the problem. Typically, schools calculate “average daily attendance.” That provides a good snapshot of a given day, but it doesn’t capture a key dynamic: the students who miss a lot of school over time. Experts say that problem is only now coming into clearer focus.
Nearly three-quarters of the states are now embracing a new practice: measuring chronic absenteeism. That shift has come about largely because of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to report on chronic absence.
The Cleveland public schools offer one example of a district that’s trying to improve attendance. District leaders learned that more than half of their nearly 40,000 students were missing 18 or more days of school each year. Kindergarten and 9th grade were the two places in the pipeline with the worst absenteeism. But the district has cut that absenteeism rate to 30 percent in the past two years.
Cleveland schools launched a huge attendance campaign, with phone banks and parent outreach. They redoubled efforts to meet the needs that sometimes interfere with school attendance, providing emergency shelter, bus passes, clean school uniforms. The district has also begun celebrating students for regular school attendance, not just perfect attendance.
Schools in other states are trying to fight back against absenteeism, too. My colleague Evie Blad reports that Oregon, Hawaii, and New Jersey are at the forefront of that battle to boost attendance.
Additional reporting by Education Week correspondent Kavitha Cardoza.
We Can Fix Chronic Absenteeism (commentary)
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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.