Last month, an investigative report by WAMU and NPR found that over half of the 2017 graduating class at Ballou High School had more than 60 unexcused absences. Just two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate. Yet every Ballou senior received a diploma.
Following these troubling reports, Mayor Muriel Bowser directed the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to conduct an audit of Ballou and every other District of Columbia public high school. The results show that Ballou was not an isolated incident, and many other schools, including Wilson, were graduating students with severe rates of absenteeism.
Last year 96.1 percent of Wilson students who missed 30-49.9 percent of the school year graduated. Students who missed 50 percent or more of the school year graduated at a rate of 81 percent. Both of these statistics are higher than the rates at Ballou and are substantially higher than the DCPS average.
In total, 38.2 percent of Wilson’s seniors last year graduated despite missing 20 percent or more of the school year. Schools including School Without Walls, an application school, and Coolidge, a traditional high school, did not graduate any students who did not follow DCPS’s absenteeism procedures.
These numbers illustrate a troubling pattern of a school system graduating students who have not met the requirements, but they do not tell the full story. Complicating matters is the District’s 80/20 rule that dictates that if a student misses 20 percent of the school day, they will be marked absent for the entire day.
For example, if a student at Wilson were to miss every single first period for the entire year, they would fall under the category of “Extreme Chronic Absence.” However they may have attended the rest of the day’s classes and fully mastered the material, even if they did not meet DCPS’s graduation standard. DCPS policy states that a student who misses 17 percent of a class (30 class periods) should fail that course. Despite Wilson’s high rates of absenteeism, there have only been 10 confirmed accounts of graduates who missed more than 30 class periods and were not failed, according to an internal report obtained by The Beacon.
Interviews with former and current Wilson teachers paint a complex picture of the relationship between attendance, content retention, and graduation rates. Environmental science and biology teacher Dani Moore explained that she “definitely [has] had students who have missed more than 30 percent of [her] class and passed, usually through credit recovery.”
She added that some students who are absent often have a strong mastery of the material and pass with high marks. Conversely, she admitted that “there are also cases of students who miss class and technically pass through programs like credit recovery, but I don’t believe they have mastered the standards for the course.”
Another Wilson teacher who left the school district last year, and preferred to remain anonymous so that they could be candid, recalled a situation where they were “specifically pressured by an administrator, who is no longer at Wilson, but still in DCPS, to sign off on a grade change that reflected a manufactured grade.”
According to the teacher, the student had a substantial number of absences, was offered multiple opportunities to make-up work, and did not turn in a final project. The teacher said that they “refused to sign off on the grade change, but the grade was changed anyway.”
The OSSE report was compiled with data, in part, from Aspen, Wilson’s online grading and attendance system. Principal Kimberly Martin notes that this can lead to inaccurate data due to teachers not entering in absences. Every year DCPS evaluates principals based on certain indicators of school performance, including attendance and graduation rates. In her own yearly evaluation, Martin’s attendance benchmarks were not scored “due to attendance data issues within in Aspen,” suggesting that DCPS does not consider Aspen an accurate source. “This seems like much ado about nothing, because I can’t even be evaluated on an attendance goal,” Martin said.
Martin is not fundamentally opposed to graduating students with high rates of absenteeism, regardless of the exact percentage. She noted that a high school diploma is essential for a successful career. “Do I lose sleep at night when I think that we might have graduated a kid who missed a lot of school?” she asked. Her response; a resounding no.
Unlike many schools across the District, the demographic group at Wilson with the highest rates of absences are white females. Surprisingly, and in direct contradiction to studies linking attendance to academic performance, white females have the highest average GPA’s.
In an interview with The Beacon, DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson reflected on the situation at Ballou and across the city. “In all of these schools, there are students who came every day, teachers were there to teach the students and they did the right thing.” Yet Chancellor Wilson admitted that “we had too many students where we lowered the bar and we did not put them in the position to reach their full potential.” •
Danielle Breslow, Chloe Leo, Adin McGurk, and Ellida Parker contributed to this story.