Second probe of graduation rates underway in Prince George’s schools

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The state ordered a second probe of grading practices and graduation rates in Maryland’s second-largest school system.

Donna St. George

Investigators have embarked on a second review of grading practices and graduation rates in a Maryland school system that spent the past year engulfed in a diploma controversy.

The new review of the Prince George’s County school system will focus on the recently graduated Class of 2018, examining those students’ records while looking at the district’s efforts to tighten procedures and oversight.

Interviews of central-office administrators in the state’s second-largest school system began this week and will be followed by visits to the system’s 22 high schools, officials said.

“I look forward to receiving their analysis of our growth and progress as we seek to improve our actions to ensure academic excellence for all students,” Monica Goldson, the school system’s acting chief executive, said in a letter released to staff Tuesday and to the community Wednesday.

The review was ordered by state officials, who in the spring rehired the D.C. consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal to take a second look into issues that affect graduation rates, including attendance, grade changes, makeup work and access to records.

The examination could last more than six months — far longer than the seven weeks devoted to the first review.

A 2017 audit found thousands of grade changes in the days before graduation. In a sampling of those records, the audit found about 30 percent of students were ineligible to graduate or lacked proof they qualified.

The school system offered a plan in December 2017 to fix problems that had been un­covered and outlined new controls, expanded training and other changes. Officials in Prince George’s also ended a program involving packets of makeup work that were used to help students rebound from failing grades and pass courses.

Members of the Maryland State Board of Education questioned Prince George’s officials at length in January about the school system’s problems and plans to resolve them. A month later, the state board took the unusual step of asking that a state employee be assigned to monitor the district’s efforts.

Maryland officials said Wednesday that the new audit started July 2 under a contract that extends through March 1. It is expected to cost $595,000, officials said.

State officials also said they are establishing a three-person office that will monitor the issue in Prince George’s County and compliance matters in other school systems.

Prince George’s officials had previously planned to hire an independent firm on their own to conduct a second audit, but with the state audit in the works, that proposal was postponed at a recent school board meeting.

District officials are looking into whether the new audit will address one of their priorities: follow-up investigation at 15 high schools highlighted for additional analysis in the first audit, said Christian Rhodes, the school system’s chief of strategic and external affairs.

“Our goal is to continue to improve our processes to ensure that every student that walks across our stage has the skills and credits necessary to be successful,” he said.

Edward Burroughs III, a school board member who helped draw attention to diploma problems, said he was pleased the new audit was starting and believed recent leadership changes would have a positive effect.

“The main thing is we have to focus on educating our low-
performing students, not just graduating them unprepared,” he said. “If we increase their learning, the graduation rate will take care of itself and there will be no need to cheat to make it happen.”

The school system’s former chief executive has said the district’s graduation rate problems did not result from central-office orders. A report on the first audit said investigators did not find evidence of systemwide intimidation.

The former chief executive, Kevin Maxwell, left the top job last week amid a string of scandals — with a contract payout of nearly $800,000.

Goldson, named acting CEO last week, noted the importance of academic integrity in her community letter.

“Diplomas and grades must reflect high academic standards and strong accountability systems,” she said. “We owe no less to our students and their futures.”

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