Final OSSE report details attendance issues

Zara Hall

A final report outlining the dramatic grade changing and attendance problems in DCPS was released January 29, two months after an NPR investigation first discovered these issues. The report found that truancy concerns are far from limited to Ballou and are a major problem at almost every DC public high school. One in three graduates last year missed too many classes to pass or incorrectly took credit recovery classes, calling into question whether these students should have been allowed to graduate.

Mayor Bowser ordered the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which hired an outside firm, Alvarez & Marshall, to conduct the investigation and report back in response to the allegations by the NPR investigation.

The OSSE report closely examined attendance and graduation records at all DCPS high schools. The school with the greatest violation rate of all comprehensive high schools was Anacostia High School, where nearly 70 percent of the 106 graduates last year improperly received diplomas.

63 percent of graduates at Ballou High School missed more classes than allowed without penalty under DCPS rules or improperly completed credit recovery. Dunbar High School had a whole different set of issues: attendance records inputted by teachers were changed by administration from absent to present more than 4000 times for the senior class. With fewer than 200 students in the senior class, that is more than 20 changes on average per senior.

A high percentage of teachers reported being pressured by Ballou administration to pass students even if the student’s attendance and work history were lacking. School administration in turn blamed DCPS leadership for not providing clear guidance or training on new attendance and grading policies that were rolled out a year ago.

The only schools with no significant discrepancies were Banneker, School Without Walls, and McKinley Tech.  All of these are application schools, which have the flexibility of “uninviting” students with high absence rates and asking them to return to their neighborhood schools.

The results of the final investigation were alarming to many city leaders. In a statement to The Beacon, councilmember Mary Cheh said she is, “surprised and disheartened to learn of what was happening at Ballou High School and was even more disappointed to learn of the attendance irregularities and changing of data at high schools across the District.”

Councilmember David Grosso had a similar reaction. “I found the results extremely troubling, and the reality is that they demonstrated a systemwide failure on the part of our schools and administration to follow the policies we have in place,” Grosso said.

Principal Martin and others are concerned that the Ballou story is more nuanced than the report suggests and sends an incomplete message to the community. Martin argues that attendance data is complicated due to policies such as the 80/20 rule, which states that if a student is absent for 20 percent of the day (one class with the block schedule), he or she will be marked absent for the full day.

“The report that the [NPR] reporter ran was day long attendance, not period attendance,” she said. “The data does not match the message that we are sending.”

However, the NPR reporter that conducted the investigation, Kate McGee, disagrees completely. In an interview with The Beacon, McGee says that, “Since the reports have come out, the chancellor has said that student absences are much more than tardiness or missing one period. For two-thirds of absences, students were missing more than thirty percent of the day.”

Grosso echoed McGee, saying, “I think it’s important to note that the Alvarrez and Marshall report (the final OSSE investigation) was based off of attendance that was collected in every class, not just attendance for the full day.” Grosso also said that the way the system is set up, “if a teacher doesn’t fill out the attendance report, the students are by default marked present,” which makes the attendance record look better than it most likely was.

Chancellor Antwan Wilson recently announced the creation of an Office of Integrity to ensure that going forward, data and compliance issues are investigated and parents, teachers and students have a channel to voice their complaints. However, many councilmembers are not satisfied. In particular, Councilmember Robert White is pushing for an investigation of DCPS central office as he feels the OSSE investigation leaves out its role in the attendance issues.

“I see a teacher evaluation system that pressures teachers to break the law,” he said at a DC Council Education Committee hearing on February 8.

The desire for an independent investigation also stems from a distrust in data reporting which has been prevalent for years.

“Everything is done internally,” State Board of Education Member Ruth Wattenberg said in an interview with The Beacon. “It’s all of the mayor’s employees who are generating the statistics, proving everything successful, and are responsible for any oversight.”•