Maryland school official responds to fraud allegations in graduation rates

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Prince George’s County schools Chief Executive Kevin M. Maxwell, in front, is shown in a file photo. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)

Four members of Prince George’s County’s school board have urged Gov. Larry Hogan to order an investigation into what they allege is a systemic effort to fraudulently boost graduation rates in the Maryland school district.

The members, a minority bloc on a 14-member board, say the state’s second-largest district engaged in “widespread systemic corruption” that has inflated graduation rates since 2014. They allege that grades were changed and that students were credited for courses they did not take.

“Whistleblowers at almost ­every level in [Prince George’s County Public Schools] have clear and convincing evidence that PGCPS has graduated hundreds of students who did not meet the Maryland State Department of Education graduation requirements,” the four said in a letter.

The accusations drew a strong reaction from other school board members and senior school system officials.

School district officials said Monday afternoon that the state had investigated the system’s graduation rates several months ago. The state did so at the request of the federal Education Department, which got an anonymous complaint last summer.

Investigators found nothing improper, district officials said, providing a state letter discussing the result of the examination, which included several hours of interviews with five people who work in the school system. The school officials also released a federal response saying the matter was closed.

“We already feel this situation was thoroughly investigated and . . . the allegations were unfounded,” Deputy Superintendent Monique Davis said Monday.

The board members who wrote the letter, dated May 30, are Edward Burroughs III (District 8), David Murray (District 1), Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) and student member Juwan Blocker. Burroughs, who provided the first signature on the letter, is a frequent critic of Kevin Maxwell, the school system’s chief executive.

The letter noted that Maxwell started as the top leader of the 132,000-student system in summer 2013 and that he has touted graduation rate improvements as a significant achievement.

Maxwell, who was appointed to a second four-year term this year by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), issued a statement that called the letter “politically motivated” and welcomed state education officials to “fully explore” the matter.

“These claims are an affront to the hard work of our teachers, administrators, students and parents over the last few years,” he said. “I categorically deny any systemic effort to promote students who did not meet state graduation requirements.”

State data shows that four-year graduation rates in Prince George’s have improved from 74.1 percent for the class of 2013 to 81.4 percent for the class of 2016. That jump was the largest for that time period of any school system in the state, data shows.

Even so, the county’s rate lagged behind the statewide rate (87.6 percent) and the rate in any other Maryland school system except the city of Baltimore’s.

Prince George’s officials attributed their gains to increasing expectations and standards since Maxwell arrived and efforts to provide support to students.

Nationally, on-time graduation rates have risen in recent years, and many school systems, especially those that are lower-
performing, have felt pressure to show gains, said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The letter was first reported Saturday by Fox 5 News. It requested that Hogan (R) order the state’s attorney general and the Maryland State Department of Education to investigate and also asked that documents be seized and a process created so that whistleblowers may come forward without fear of retribution.

A spokeswoman for Hogan called the allegations “very concerning” and said in an email that they had been forwarded to the state education department.

A state Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment Monday.

The letter alleged that whistleblowers have evidence about the ma­nipu­la­tion of student records both before and after graduation.

According to the four board members, the whistleblowers said:

●Courses that students had not taken had been added to their records;

●Grades were changed without teachers’ consent;

●Students received credit for service learning hours that they had not earned. Maryland requires students to amass a certain number of service learning hours for graduation.

“These actions, which alter the much touted student graduation rate, are occurring across the school system leading us to believe that there are accomplices and complicity at the highest levels of the school system,” the letter said.

In a separate letter to county citizens, nine other school board members said Monday they were shocked and dismayed by the allegations and had no knowledge or evidence of systemic corruption to increase graduation results.

They said it was “appalling” that the minority bloc ignored local leadership and chose to “secretly share and distribute information that seeks to belittle the hard work of students, educators and parents.” The school district has monitoring and compliance systems in place, and those who cut corners would face “definitive sanctions,” the nine wrote.

Baker told reporters he had not seen the letter to the governor but had spoken to Maxwell. Baker said any allegations would be taken seriously, but he also commended the district’s success.

“They’ve done a great job in the school system to get the graduation rates up,” he said. “The teachers and principals have worked really hard. And so I know that they are going to look at this seriously. We’re very proud of the work the school system has done and the progress they’ve made.”

Via Washington Post 

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