DCPS Needs An Independent Investigation Into Grad Standards

District officials – including Supt. Antwan Wilson – are still making excuses about the revelations at Ballou High

Last month, I had the opportunity to hear D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Antwan Wilson speak at Democrats for Education Reform‘s annual conference in Washington. He spoke about how his own education had impacted his life, recounted the progress DCPS has made over the past several years, and made clear that he intended to continue and build upon the reforms of his predecessors.

“Young people need to be prepared for opportunities they will have,” Wilson said. “We do that through excellence, equity, and love.”

I couldn’t agree with him more and that’s why it’s been disappointing to see how Wilson and other DCPS officials have responded to revelations that administrators at Ballou High School handed out diplomas to scores of students who hadn’t met the district’s graduation requirements.

As noted in a previous post, when WAMU reporter Kate McGee first confronted Wilson with evidence that Ballou teachers and administrators had ignored excessive absences and changed students’ grades to make them eligible to graduate, he abruptly ended the interview. Subsequent DCPS statements on the unfolding scandal sought to minimize the issue, as if the unethical conduct at Ballou was no big deal.

But after McGee’s investigation ended up on NPR’s All Things Considered, DCPS could no longer ignore the problem. Over the past two weeks, Supt. Wilson has launched an internal investigation into the allegations and reassigned Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves.

Nevertheless, Wilson continues to downplay the seriousness of the situation. At a day-long meeting of the D.C. City Council on Friday, he acknowledged that Ballou and other high schools in the district had graduated students with chronic absences (for example, half of Ballou’s graduating class last year had missed at least 30 days of school), but he also attempted to make excuses for those involved.

“I believe that our students earned their diplomas by reaching a level of mastery deemed appropriate by our teachers,” Wilson told council members. “I believe that educators did what they needed to do based on the circumstances that they are in.”

No one would deny that educators at Ballou and other DCPS schools face considerable challenges, but that doesn’t mean they can totally disregard district policy and hand out diplomas to students who didn’t earn them. The fact that Wilson would suggest otherwise does not bode well for the district’s future under his leadership.

On Wednesday, the D.C. State Board of Education will consider a resolution calling for an independent investigation of the district’s graduation protocols. Given the district’s reluctance to acknowledge the problem, the board should endorse the measure. A full and unbiased accounting of the extent of the problems uncovered at Ballou are needed so schools won’t be able to manipulate their graduation rates in the future.


Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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