More Course-Credit Abuses Discovered in Richmond Schools

Richmond school superintendent Jason Kamras at news conference. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The graduation scandal in the Richmond Public School system just went from bad to worse. Following up on a state audit in November that found extensive irregularities in the awarding of class credits, a team of city and state school administrators has reviewed every current high school transcript. What they found, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Rubber-stamping student work. Choosing to use an alternative test instead of giving students the common state test. Putting students on individualized education programs to circumvent state graduation requirements.

Only three in four city seniors in Richmond high schools graduated on time last year. The graduation rate was 16 percentage points below the state average. But, as low as it was, the rate was artificially boosted by administrative artifice. Said Tracy Epp, the district’s chief academic officer: “The further we dig in, the more issues we discover.”

Virginia has two credit types, explains the RTD: a standard credit for completing a class and a verified credit for completing the class as well as passing an end-of-course Standards of Learning test or a substitute test approved by the state Board of Education.

Students who pass a class, score between 375-399 on the Standards of Learning test (400 is passing), and then fail a retake of the test, still might be eligible for credit if a “review” of the student’s classwork shows he or she has mastered the content. The investigators found that, instead of reviewing the students’ work, previous administrations awarded the credit automatically.

Some schools also used an alternative, less rigorous test, the WorkKeys assessment, in place of reading and writing SOLs.

A third trick: Richmond schools also allowed some students to circumvent most diploma regulations by allowing them to meet the requirements of the less rigorous individualized education program, normally awarded only to students with disabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: Richmond school superintendent Jason Kamras seems determined to root out the abuses, which began on the watch of the previous school administrator. The decision to end “inappropriate practices” could depress the graduation rate even further this year, he said at a news conference yesterday. “I would rather have a slightly lower rate and be able to stand behind every one than have a higher rate with questions about the authenticity of the diplomas.”

That is the right course of action. Devaluing the RPS diploma would do a huge disservice to the students who worked hard, mastered their material, deserved to graduate, and rely upon their diploma as a college or workforce credential.

I just have to wonder, though. Is this administrative cheating on graduation rates limited to Richmond Public Schools? Or do similar practices occur in other school systems? I hope the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is asking the same question.

Update: Lest anyone think that cutting students slack is a temptation unique to poor urban school systems, think again. The chiseling just takes a different form in more affluent schools, where the dropout rate is not an issue. The Wall Street Journal reports today how one in five students at Scarsdale High School in New York is eligible for extra time, a separate room, or other accommodations when taking the SAT or ACT college entrance exams. At Newton North High School outside Boston, the rate is one in three.

The 504 designation is meant to give students with anxiety, ADHD or other issues a chance to handle the stress of schoolwork at their own pace. Nationally, 4% of students at affluent schools receive the designation, while only 1.6% of students in poorer schools do, according to the WSJ analysis.

The erosion in standards is national in scope. It just takes different forms in different contexts. I would love to know how Virginia schools fare in the granting of 504 designations. Maybe that’s worth a VDOE audit, too.

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9 responses to “More Course-Credit Abuses Discovered in Richmond Schools

  1. I suspect this is a potential problem at many schools with large numbers of kids who’s parents are undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty.

    It’s just a terrible reality that schools alone – cannot fix and holding them “accountable” absent anything else to address the issue is more a blame game for the critics than anything they seriously want to actually deal with.

    This is what happens when we have folks who do did not get educated years, decades ago. They grow up without a sufficient education, they have kids and the cycle continues – because schools alone – at least conventional ones are not sufficient to help all the kids. A few, with good parents and self-motivated, yes – but they are the rare ones aside from the larger groups.

    Once again, I will say I am MORE THAN WILLING to see non-public schools get involved in this but with the caveat – that they too have to be as “serious” as the critics seem to be with respect to public schools.

    And that basically means, non-public schools that take large numbers of these kids just as Richmond Public schools has to – and they educate them and are held to the same accountability standards.

    The critics have no credibility if all those want to do is blame.

  2. Many of these tactics were quite widespread under the pressure from No Child Left Behind. That’s gone but the high-stakes SOL process creates the same temptation. And in Richmond there is a problem with the overall graduation rate. It may be more commonplace here, sadly. And of course, some of the accommodations exist because some students need them. But giving a child a meaningless credential is no favor.

    You are dead-on with the 504s. WSJ has broken some code on that one. But watch the story get snuffed….

  3. “Once again, I will say I am MORE THAN WILLING to see non-public schools get involved in this but with the caveat – that they too have to be as “serious” as the critics seem to be with respect to public schools.”

    We’re been there and done that, as early as the first half of 20th century. The benefits to disadvantaged kids going to charter, private, and their public equivalents, no matter who those kids are, is overwhelmingly favorable to the child’s ability to learn and succeed in life. That is no longer at issue. Breaking the back of entrenched, corrupt public school interests, such as labor unions, and white progressives like Jason Kamras, now is needed. The majority of parents of disadvantaged kids know this truth now, so we’ll win.

    It is only a matter of time now for demise of broken public schools.

    • Reed’s right, Larry, and you’re off base. Many, many non-profits have served those communities for years, usually well, but with a hostile reaction from the would-be monopoly public system. Some of the hostility is toward schools with a strong religious component, usually but not always the Catholics (historically the enmity was toward Catholics.) Good recent G. Will column:

      • Good column by George Will. Do you happen to have Fauxchohontas’ e-mail address? As a Catholic I’d like to apply for reparations.

      • The truth of the matter is that public schools do a pretty good job for most kids whose parents have decent educations and not as good when dealing with “at-risk” kids who live in poverty circumstances with ill-educated parents.

        I’ve said over and over – I am fine with non-public schools taking on that task and I’d support using public tax dollars – as long as they actually have success at teaching this difficult demographic and are held accountable for the same standards.

        I am not in favor of high-stakes tests but that’s not a reason to not have assessments upon which we measure success and accountability.

        The ‘answer’ to this issue is NOT charter or non-profit schools that are not held accountable. That’s just an excuse to further damage public schools -which I said – and is well demonstrated – do a fine job with most kids from middle-class demographics and have educated parents.

        I’m not even opposed to a “religious” component as long as the child is not forced into the schools flavor of it and is free to participate or not.

        Just ragging on the public schools as “failed” – across the board – is the stuff of nonsense and ignorance of which we do have a few practitioners.

        • Larry – did you read Jim’s article? He was describing how the Richmond public schools are cheating on graduation requirements. Where does he claim that public schools are universally bad?

          In Virginia there is a dearth of charter schools. That’s because the law makes it very hard to get approved to start one. Why? C’mon, Larry … you know the answer – the same thing that is ALWAYS the answer in Virginia:

          Political contributions from “Public school teachers/staff” (all years): $5,011,764

          It’s the usual money laundering. Teachers / Staff to Va Education Association to about 83% Democrats.

          Virginia is just one of five states where charter schools have to be approved by local school boards.

          Sound familiar?

          • DJ – I DID read it and I ask again – if we did not have NCLB, would we know it?

            re: ” Where does he claim that public schools are universally bad?”

            Oh he did not this time but it’s a fairly common theme here in BR from the critics:

            “It is only a matter of time now for demise of broken public schools”

            and , re: ” Why? C’mon, Larry … you know the answer – the same thing that is ALWAYS the answer in Virginia:”

            and I OPPOSE that and DO FAVOR the use of public tax money for non-public schools – AS LONG AS THEY HAVE TO MEET THE SAME STANDARDS – in terms of what demographics they accept AND reporting of academic performance.

            In other words, I have no problem with legitimate competition but the idea that these charter/non-public schools can take the same hard-to-teach demographic that public schools have to take – and do better – that’s pure balderdash.

            But again, I game for the idea if they want to step up and say that along with public funds – they agree to take all demographics AND report academic performance so that we all can see that they too are under scrutiny for the same things that we hold public schools accountable for.

            I’m a hard skeptic. I think charter/non-public schools are a ruse for providing opportunities for kids that are already well off and to exclude the ones that are hard-to-teach.

            but again – if they want to take that tougher demographic and be accountable – let’s do it – and we’re gonna find out if it’s the public schools that is the problem or the tougher-to-teach demographics.

  4. Let me further point out here that “No child left behind” – the motivation that created the SOLs in Virginia – was a CONSERVATIVE idea. It came to fruition from George Bush:

    It was strongly supported by many Conservatives because prior to it – there was little if any accountability.

    NOW – the CRITICS are actually using the data that this law requires to be collected, to impugn the public school system.!

    If we never had NCLB – how would we know what is going on in the Richmond Public School system? We’d be told that everything was “fine” and the critics would be crying bloody murder that they suspected bad stuff but could not “prove” it.

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