DCPS graduation rates to drop following stricter requirements

Elie Salem and Zara Hall

A midyear report DCPS released April of this year found that only 46 percent of DCPS seniors are on track to graduate, 27 percentage points fewer than the graduation rate of last year. At Wilson, 62 percent of seniors were on track to graduate tomorrow, a similar plunge of 28 percentage points from 90 percent last year.

While students delegated as ‘moderately off-track’ can still graduate, nearly every student in that category would have to complete their courses, attend summer school, or take credit recovery to exceed or get close to meeting last year’s graduation rates. The probability of that is highly unlikely.

This reversal bucks a remarkable upward trend within DCPS. In the past five years, graduation rates made an unprecedented 17 percentage point climb, from 56 percent to 73 percent. To casual observers, it seemed that dogged liberal reform efforts–wage-based teacher evaluations, large education investment, and attendance programs–had transformed the school system from among the worst in the nation to moderately competitive. DCPS was heralded as the, “fastest improving urban school district in the United States” by the 2015 Trial Urban District Assessment. Education advocates celebrated the school system as a national role model.

Throughout this school year, a series of major scandals have called the ‘DCPS model’ into question. Last November, a WAMU/NPR investigation found that the majority of graduates of Ballou High School graduated in violation of DCPS policy regarding absences and use of credit recovery programs, which allow students to make up credit for a course they have previously failed. A subsequent investigation by the Office of the Secretary of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in January extended that figure: one-third of DCPS’ 2017 graduating class were chronically absent and should have been disqualified from graduating.

These investigations diminished trust in DCPS graduation data. “It will be very difficult for me to trust future claims of growing graduation rates when we have evidence today that DCPS has been cooking the books and not following their own policies,” Mary Cheh said in a statement.

In response to the findings of the OSSE investigation, DCPS mandated strict enforcement of pre-existing attendance policies. Any student who missed five days unexcused in an advisory would get a grade reduction, 15 would result in a failure due to absence (FA) in the advisory, and 30 in a year would result in a failure due to absence for the entire class. Credit recovery could not be taken on courses failed due to absence, and students must pass credit recovery with a rigorous 80 percent mastery to be counted. While some seniors will be barred from graduating due to this new policy, a emergency bill recently passed the DC Council stating that 26 chronically absent students will be able to graduate.

In an interview with The Beacon prior to his resignation, Chancellor Wilson outlined his policy reforms. “If the student does not do it–by ‘it’ I mean come to class, do the work, learn what they’re supposed to learn–then I expect the teacher to give them the grade that they earned and I expect the student to be in a position where they’re retaking a course or coming to summer school. If they need to come back next year they should do that,” he said.  

At Ballou High School, which made headlines last year for its 100 percent graduation rate and college acceptances, only 33 percent of seniors are on track to graduate. At Anacostia High School, a quarter of seniors are on track to graduate.

To rebuild faith in DCPS, Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander’s administration has focused on transparency. “In order to build trust I need to be transparent, and be honest, and tell the truth. So that means releasing the graduation data [despite the decrease], which I have already done. Everyone knows that we’re currently at 42 percent for sure,” Alexander said in an interview with The Beacon, referring to the projected 42 percent graduation rate from December for the class of 2018.

Councilmember David Grosso, however, was not satisfied with the release of graduation data alone. During a May hearing with the DC Council, Alexander did not know the number of high school seniors who were not on track to graduate due to low attendance. Grosso’s response was furious. “When you don’t give us the data that we request and when you don’t work with us to prepare for these hearings, you are disrespecting the public,” he said.

Wilson Principal Kimberly Martin said that, while these policies had an adverse effect on graduation rates, they definitely caused an uptick in attendance. “Attendance was very cavalier, and I think one of the benefits [of these policies] has been [that] students are taking attendance a lot more seriously,” Martin said.  

Martin noted, though, that the mid-year enforcement left many students struggling to catch up.