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.
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.