Every single student – including students who do not show up for class for months and cannot read or write – received their diplomas at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C.
This liberal graduation trend is by no means a rare occurrence on high school campuses in the nation’s capital.
“Students across the city graduated despite having missed more than 30 days of school in a single course, findings from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent investigation found,” Townhall reported. “The investigation is still ongoing, but parents' demand for answers prompted city officials to share some initial findings.”
Schools for scandal
WAMU radio and NPR conducted an investigation exposing the reason why D.C. high schools – including the longtime academically challenged Ballou High School located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods – had overwhelmingly high graduation rates. Soon after, a city-wide audit was conducted exposing what really went on behind school gates.
All 164 seniors at Ballou received diplomas – with dozens of them issued to students with excessively high rates of unexcused absences – and to top that off, every single graduate of the school applied to college and was accepted. This marvel – in an area of the nation that was amongst the lowest in high school graduation rates for years – was celebrated and covered by national media across the nation.
After scrutinizing hundreds of documents, chronic unexcused absenteeism was prevalent for numerous students, with half of Ballou’s graduates missing more than three months (60 days) of school.
“We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou's attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents,” NPR reported. “Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present – missing more than 90 days of school.”
This fact – in and of itself – should have precluded most students from being eligible to receive diplomas.
“According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course,” NPR’s Kate McGee informed. “Research shows that missing 10 percent of school – about two days per month – can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.”
Ballou High School history teacher Brian Butcher said that during his 20 years of teaching at low-performing schools from New York City to Florida, he never saw 12th-grade students who could not read and write, but admits that this was not the case at the D.C. school, where many students fit this description, yet nonetheless received diplomas and college acceptance.
"You saw kids walking across the stage, who, they're nice young people, but they don't deserve to be walking across the stage," Butcher told NPR. "It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was."
After speaking with about a dozen current and recent teachers at Ballou, along with four recent graduates, a consistent story was uncovered by NPR and WAMU – that administration pressured teachers to pass students who were chronically absent … a fact of which students were well aware and took full advantage.
Feeling compelled to violate their conscience, Ballou teachers argue that moving students forward who do not deserve to be passed is a huge disservice to the school’s youth.
"It's oppressive to the kids because you're giving them a false sense of success," a current Ballou teacher wishing to remain anonymous to keep her job contended.
Another Ballou teacher speaking on the condition of anonymity addressed the problem as a moral issue.
"To not prepare them is not ethical," the D.C. high school instructor stressed, according to NPR.
Over the past two years, Morgan Williams taught health and physical education at Ballou and maintains that even though the gym was always full because students skipping other classes would congregate there, many of her students were chronically absent – despite her ignored pleas to administrators and counselors to remedy the situation.
"They're not prepared to succeed," Williams insisted, noting that students were being set up for failure because of the staff’s lack of expectations. "If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?"
Playing dumb is rewarded at Ballou – for teachers and students alike.
"Either you want your professional career on paper to look like you don't know what you're doing or you just skate by – play by the game," a Ballou teacher wanting to remain anonymous to protect her job shared with NPR.”
And those who stay in the game score a win – at least in their bank account.
“If an evaluation score is high enough to reach the ‘highly effective’ status, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses,” McGee explained. “D.C. Public Schools wouldn't tell us who gets a bonus, but teachers we spoke with didsay the possibility of such a large bonus increases the pressure on teachers to improve student numbers.”
At a press conference addressing the graduation scandal on Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser appeared shocked and upset that students have erroneously been taught that they can move forward in life without making an effort.
“Our biggest responsibility is knowing that showing up half the time doesn’t work anywhere in life,” Bowser insisted, according to Townhall. "The huge investments we have made in our schools only work if students are sitting in the seats."
The mayor claimed she is “not happy” about belatedly being told about the problems existing in the D.C. school system, maintaining after the superintendents’ review that it is “clear” that more in-depth evaluations must be made regarding what is truly going in inside high school gates.
"I’ll hold the chancellor accountable," Bowser promised, Townhall reported.
The city is looking to replace Ballou High School Principal Yetunde Reeves after she was put on administrative leave following the scandal, and major changes are being made to reconfigure the faculty at the school, as well.
Local viewers were skeptical and blasted the school system and D.C. leadership in the comment section.
“Dr. Reeves should be prosecuted,” a local viewer demanded in the comment section, where many were skeptical about the announced changes that are being made, according to Townhall.
Another commenter lashed out at D.C. leadership and the school system over the scandal.
“Revoke every diploma of every student who failed to meet grad requirements,” one comment read. “Otherwise this is a cruel joke that will have a lasting impact on every DCPS graduate.”
Some commentators suggested that local parents homeschool their children and give up on the public education system in the nation’s capital altogether.
Early signs: Spiked test scores
What was happening at Ballou should come of little surprise to those keeping abreast of the changes – at least on paper – that have been taking place in D.C.’s public education system for some time.
“[On] July 13, 2010. Michelle Rhee, then D.C. schools chancellor, proclaimed at a news conference that Ballou High School was no longer ‘a symbol of what was going wrong in public education’ in the nation’s capital, but a sign of what was going right [because] standardized test proficiency scores had risen from single digits – though to still-failing rates,” the Washington Post reported last November. “Rhee’s patron, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, stood at her side and called for ‘a big round of applause’ for Ballou’s teachers.”
But claps later turned to jeers.
“Fast-forward to Nov. 29, 2017: A new D.C. schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, an admirer of Rhee, stood by his patron, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), a Fenty ally, at a news conference to defend allegations that many students who did not qualify for a diploma graduated from Ballou in 2017 – including some who could not read or write well,” the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported at the time. “Neither Wilson – who succeeded Kaya Henderson as chancellor in February – nor Bowser could refute the revelations about Ballou, outlined in an investigation by WAMU and NPR, but promised to investigate.”
Manipulating test scores to present a false perception that students were learning and excelling academically was a major component of boosting the graduation rate and padding salaries.
“Started by Rhee in 2007 and carried on by Henderson, the reforms relied on the use of standardized tests to evaluate students, schools and educators,” Strauss added. “They also included a groundbreaking performance pay system paid for by philanthropists, and chronic churn in teachers and principals. These reforms have not only failed to fix some long-standing problems in the system, but exacerbated others.”
Numbers speak volumes, and education officials in D.C. took full advantage of this fact.
“District officials like to tout rising standardized test scores as evidence of progress – as Bowser and Wilson did repeatedly,” Strauss pointed out in late November. “But the proficiency rates of D.C. district students today would still be considered failing in a high-performing district – and the D.C. system retains a stubborn, gaping achievement gap.”
Turning performance scores and graduation rates upside down was made possible by Rhee, who also used improved numbers to increase pay.
“A key reform was the employee assessment system known as IMPACT was spearheaded under Rhee by Henderson, her deputy, and initially relied heavily on student standardized test scores to evaluate every adult in the system, including custodians,” Strauss noted. “Although changes have been made, IMPACT still rewards teachers with bonuses based on student achievement, which is problematic for a few reasons.”
She went on to demonstrate that the evaluations were merely used to work toward the advantage of school district employees – not students.
“Assessment experts have warned against using test scores for high-stakes decisions on teachers, saying they are unreliable for those purposes, [a]nd Wilson, probably unwittingly, underscored another reason during the news conference,” Strauss continued. “He said that the Common Core test known as PARCC – given to D.C. students in different grades for annual accountability purposes – doesn’t actually assess what students learn in their classrooms. Later, however, he cited the dramatic rise in PARCC scores in the system as proof of progress. Progress of what?”
Turns out, instead of students learning from the tests, they were just used as pawns to forward the school system’s agenda to improve scores – and increase pay.
“Not surprisingly, he didn’t mention past episodes during the Rhee and Henderson administrations in which teachers were caught helping students on high-stakes standardized tests,” Strauss emphasized. “IMPACT provided an incentive for some to do that.”
With the manipulated test scores, chronic absenteeism and perfect graduation rate still under review, major changes are expected to take place at Ballou High well after probe results unfold when the district-wide investigation results are announced at the end of the month.