Ballou investigation prompts policy change

Elie Salem

In a directive sent via email to the DCPS community on January 16, Chancellor Antwan Wilson outlined several changes to DCPS policy that will be implemented in the coming months. The changes involve verifying students have met graduation requirements, conducting more rigorous credit recovery, managing truancy, and adding teacher feedback to student grading.

These policy reforms came in the wake of the WAMU and NPR investigation of Ballou High School, where it was found that about half of the graduating class had more than 60 unexcused absences. These students graduated in violation of DCPS policy at the time, which mandates that 30 unexcused absences automatically leads to failing a class.

On December 4, during the ongoing political fallout from Ballou, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to conduct an independent study on attendance and graduation outcomes in DCPS and on Ballou High School.

The report found that Ballou fostered an atmosphere of pressuring teachers to provide students opportunities to pass, as well as incorrect guidance on how teachers should input attendance into the DCPS computer system. Additionally, it was found that Ballou High School excessively used credit recovery for students and violated a number of DCPS rules in their implementation of credit recovery programs.

The Ballou report found that 83 percent of the 59 students in Ballou’s evening credit recovery courses passed with at least 3 unexcused absences in their credit recovery class, in direct contradiction to DCPS policy. In addition, students were taking credit recovery courses before they received a fail grade, which is against DCPS policy.

While the Chancellor’s office seemed surprised by the findings of the Ballou report, DCPS policies were partly responsible for encouraging Ballou to graduate more students. In his five-year strategic plan, Chancellor Wilson is pushing for a graduation rate of 85 percent by 2022, 12 points higher than today, and is pressing schools to prioritise graduation. Data released from the OSSE report indicates that recent increases in graduation rates are largely due to passing chronically absent students. DCPS passed 88 percent of students classified as profoundly chronically absent (missing 54 to 90 days of school), an increase of 12 percent from 2015, and nearly half of students classified extremely chronically absent (missing over 90 days of school), doubling from a quarter in 2015.

In an interview with The Beacon, Chancellor Wilson outlined areas of reform. A transcript review of all students will now be conducted by DCPS, including this year’s graduating class, to ensure that all graduates meet the requirements.

In his policy changes, Chancellor Wilson also plans to reform credit recovery, a program which was routinely abused at Ballou. Credit recovery allows students who fail a class to take after school classes, online classes, or summer school, to recover the credits lost. Credit recovery, however, has been criticised for being an easy shortcut around rigorous schoolwork. It is only mandated that students complete 70 percent of the course in credit recovery to receive credit. In fact, students are able to complete the necessary work in a few marathon sessions, according to Grymes, who teaches credit recovery afterschool at Wilson.

Chancellor Wilson plans to address these concerns by creating ‘the nation’s strongest credit recovery program’. He is increasing the percent of the course that students need complete from 70 percent to 80 percent, and he reiterated that he would ensure DCPS teachers know how to input credit recovery grades in the gradebooks and know how credit recovery will be recorded on student transcripts.

Though it factors into students’ GPA and is represented by a seperate column on student transcripts, credit recovery is not supposed to replace students’ previous grade in a class.

The main issue that was not addressed in this change was exactly how the Chancellor will make sure DC public schools are following his directions regarding credit recovery. After all, these rules were in place before it was found that Ballou was abusing its credit recovery policy.

As of now, only one full-time permanent employee is responsible for overseeing all credit recovery programs across DCPS. The OSSE report noted that due to little oversight from Central Office, Ballou’s lax credit recovery policy has become the rule not the exception.

When Chancellor Wilson was asked by the Beacon whether credit recovery oversight from central office would be increased, Wilson replied, ‘that is happening’ adding that he would require schools to check credit recovery data and would conduct drop-in checks to ensure district rules were being followed.

According to Chancellor Wilson, those who were supposed to be conducting these check-ins at Ballou and other schools failed to do so, though he did not specify who held this responsibility.

The part of the Chancellor’s plan related to managing low school attendance, which he dubbed ‘a crisis’, was more vague; he wrote that DCPS, “must partner with schools and families to ensure students come to school everyday,” though he provided no specifics on how exactly this obligation would be fulfilled. His main policy change regarding attendance directed schools to alert parents when students are not in class, a policy that is already in effect in many schools, including Wilson.

In his interview with the Beacon, Chancellor Wilson discussed a possible expansion or recalibration of attendance outreach programs that would be better integrated with local communities, though he appears to be far from any formal proposals.

The Chancellor made it clear that the focus of these changes was on resolving the problems evident in Ballou and across DCPS.“Graduation rates should be a reflection of hard work and effort,” said the Chancellor. “I expect teachers to give students the grade they have earned.”