The Department of Education is cracking down on graduation rate inflation, following an internal audit that uncovered errors and possible evidence of cheating at 60 high schools.
The audits, conducted by the department’s internal auditor, scrutinized data at 60 high schools that had posted unusual or striking results. Of the 9,582 students who graduated from the schools in 2010, the audit found that 292 did not have the exam grades or course credits required under state regulations.
At one school, Landmark High School, 35 students had graduated without earning all of the academic credits required for graduation. At another, Pablo Neruda Academy for Architecture and World Studies, 19 students had gotten credits through “credit recovery” that the school could not prove complied with state requirements. At two schools, Fort Hamilton High School and Hillcrest High School, an examination of Regents exams uncovered problems in the scoring of multiple students’ tests.
Department officials said they had asked Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to launch inquiries at nine schools based on issues raised during the audits. (Schools where investigations were already underway were excluded from the audit.)
Students who graduated without sufficient credits won’t have their diplomas revoked, officials said. And schools won’t have their graduation rates revised to reflect the audited numbers, either, except potentially where the city found schools had purged students from their rolls without confirming that they had enrolled elsewhere.
Instead, department officials are cracking down on loopholes in city and state regulations about how to graduate students. Among the major policy changes are revisions to Regents exam scoring procedures, new limitations on “credit recovery” options for students who fail courses, and an alteration to the way schools determine whether a student has met graduation requirements.
The changes reflect a new understanding of the degree to which principals had become confused with — or, in some cases, ignorant of — graduation policies. They also reflect an unusual acknowledgment from the Department of Education that its strategies for delivering support to schools and holding them accountable are not always successful.
As the state incrementally toughened Regents exam score requirements, some schools failed to keep up the pace. Administrators at others mistakenly believed that because their schools had inadequate gym facilities, they did not have to schedule students for seven semesters of physical education classes — a phenomenon GothamSchools documented at Pace High School, which was not among the 23 schools where auditors found problems with P.E. credits.
“I don’t think we understood prior to doing this audit the range of the questions people had,” Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the audit.
For years, principals have learned about graduation requirements by word of mouth and through an ad hoc series of memos and emails that could easily be lost in a sea of paperwork. Now, principals will get a single 40-page guide that compiles all city and state regulations and will be required to attend trainings about them in the coming months.
They will also no longer be able to certify students for graduation unless the city’s data system shows that all course and exam requirements have been met.
Ernest Logan, president of the union that represents principals, said in a statement that principals would appreciate the assistance and also signaled that they would like more support in navigating the technical elements of graduation requirements. In recent years, the city has handed responsibility for advising principals from local superintendents to networks that the principals hire.
“[Walcott’s] promise to tighten DOE procedures will be appreciated by school leaders throughout the system,” Logan said. “We hope that the authority of local superintendents to support and advise principals will be restored as part of the remedy.”
Giving more authority to superintendents wasn’t on the city’s agenda today as officials outlined the steps they are taking to prevent abuses going forward. Instead, they announced a slate of new policies — some seemingly more aggressive than the audit’s findings would warrant.
Changing grading practices in place since the state’s testing program launched more than a century ago, schools will no longer score Regents exams in house. By June 2013, all schools will have their Regents exams graded off-site in a logistically complex endeavor that brings high school exam grading in line with what the state already requires for elementary and middle school tests.
“We have to remove any opportunity for any kind of misconduct,” Polakow-Suransky said. “We need to make sure this is airtight the way the 3-8 system is.”
The city’s new regulations also substantially constrain the use of credit recovery, a controversial practice that allows students to make up credits for courses they failed without having to retake the entire class. Last year, about 1.7 percent of high school credits were gained through credit recovery; the audit found inappropriate use of the practice at nine of the schools, mostly for small numbers of students.
Under the new rules, students will be allowed to earn no more than three credits in the four academic subjects through credit recovery, and the makeup work must take place in the semester or summer after the course is failed. Schools will be allowed to use online credit recovery programs only if the city has pre-approved them. And the teacher who originally issued the failing grade must weigh in on the decision of whether to grant a student credit for make-up work.
A teacher at Grover Cleveland High School, which could be closed if it does not reach a 60 percent four-year graduation standard that the state has set, said the rules would heighten the challenge his school faces but added that teachers would rise to meet the expectations.
“It’s going to make it harder for kids to receive their credits and make schools like ours have a tougher time getting that 60 percent graduation rate, but a school like Grover Cleveland is going to do what it needs to do to get that 60 percent and improve our stats,” said Russ Nichtman, a science teacher.
A teachers union official said a more complete accounting of how credit recovery is used is needed.
“The city’s teachers are in favor of a complete investigation of the misuses of credit recovery, along with rigorous enforcement of regulations to make sure that students not only graduate from high school, but actually learn what they need to know to succeed in college and careers,” said Leo Casey, the union’s vice president in charge of high schools.
Polakow-Suransky said he did not anticipate that schools’ graduation rates would decline because of the new policies. He said the department was more concerned about the phaseout of the local diploma option this year. Students who entered high school in 2008 are the first to be required to earn a Regents diploma by passing five exams with a grade of 65 or higher. Previously, students could pass at least one exam with a grade between 55 and 64.