An independent audit for the Maryland State Board of Education found that many Prince George’s County high schoolers may have graduated in the past two years without meeting requirements. The audit didn't find any intimidation or conscious fraud, but the school system's CEO said "we need to act with urgency to reform longstanding practices in our schools."
WASHINGTON – Nearly one of four Prince George’s County high schoolers surveyed in an audit released Friday may have graduated in the past two years without meeting requirements.
An independent audit for the Maryland State Board of Education was unable to verify that 24.5 percent of graduated seniors in the sample that had grades changed in 2016 and 2017 had those grades changed for proper reasons.
An additional 4.9 percent of the randomly selected sample of graduated seniors was in fact ineligible to graduate, since they did not meet classroom requirements or service learning hours, even with grade changes. Some grades were even changed after graduation ceremonies.
And 43.8 percent of the students whose records were examined in the audit graduated during those two years despite having more than 10 “unlawful” – unexcused – absences, which is supposed to result in an automatic E grade for a course. Indeed, 159 students in the survey who graduated in 2017 had more than 50 such absences.
The review looked at 1,212 student records randomly selected from the 5,496 graduated seniors who had grades changed after a year-end deadline in 2016 or 2017. If the 24.5 percent rate held over the entire group of seniors with grade changes, it would translate to about 1,600 students.
In a news conference Friday shortly after the audit was released, Kevin Maxwell, the CEO of the school system, said that the results “clearly show we have antiquated systems, and there is more need for effective communication and training on policies and practices.”
School board chairman Segun Eubanks agreed, saying, “The audit found, absolutely, that there were significant flaws in our system that must be addressed.”
But both men emphasized another finding of the report: There was no evidence that anyone in school department leadership directed such grade changes. The report “[does] not support allegations of systemic direction to change grades in order to artificially increase graduation rates,” Maxwell said; nor did it find evidence of financial incentives or intimidation.
“I have never done that,” Maxwell added. “I’ve said all along I’ve never done that; my team has ever done that, and this report says that we’ve never done that.”
That said, the report uncovered many problems.
The audit found “handwritten marking on transcripts where schools are performing math to determine the grade change required for a student to pass a class.” In some cases, “grades were modified after the commencement of this investigation.”
The audit report documented complaints from teachers, staff and parents, including:
Reports that guidance counselors distributed lists of students who needed a grade boost
Reports that grades were changed by other staff without the teacher’s knowledge;
Reports that required grade-change justification forms were ignored; and
Complaints that the school system was “push[ing] students through to graduation with limited reading, writing or mathematics skills.”
In addition, while the school system has an official credit-recovery program for students looking to make up for failed classes, some schools were found to have their own “unofficial” programs. The report says the schools used the official packet of worksheets, but graded them themselves.
“At some schools, the packets were not graded at all, but rather, once a student completed the packets they were given credit for doing so regardless of the quality of their responses,” the report said.
“In all instances noted,” the report continued, “these recovery packets were provided towards the end of the senior year when students had failed their specific courses. In some instances, these unofficial programs were administered by guidance counselors or administration and there was no indication that teachers were made aware of the resulting grade changes.”
The audit says the Prince George’s County school system trusts its 28 individual high schools to handle too many issues on their own, including significant amounts of extra credit or makeup work for students who’ve missed lots of classes, or overuse of a 50 percent minimum grade for students who show a “good-faith effort.”
The audit, based on research conducted in September and October, used interviews and data analysis to reach its conclusions. It was sparked by a series of complaints to the state and county.
The report recommends more oversight, limiting access to the electronic grading system, and clearer system-wide policies for when students can use makeup work or learning modules to boost grades. It finds that there is no penalty for teachers or staff who do not follow existing procedures.
Grade entry timelines into SchoolMAX, the system’s online grading portal, “are not followed by schools. Grades are regularly submitted and changed after quarterly cut-off dates,” the audit finds.
‘This cannot continue’
At Friday’s news conference, Maxwell said, “too many schools either did not consistently not follow policy, did not adhere to or know about established procedures, or, in some cases, instituted their own internal process for grade changes and graduation eligibility. This cannot continue.”
“If we found somebody manipulated things … we will take appropriate disciplinary action,” He added.
Maxwell plans to ask for a follow-up review next year.
Eubanks called the audit “unprecedented,” and caused by people who went straight to the office of Gov. Larry Hogan rather than working within the county system. He said, “We invite the governor and others to examine what’s going on with other school systems as well. Because we don’t know where we stand [relatively]. …
“If there are school districts out there who don’t have these problems, I want to know who they are so I can learn from them. If there are others who have these problems, I want to work with them so we can solve these problems together.”
While most School Board members stood with Maxwell and Eubanks during the news conference, board member Edward Burroughs, one of the first to make the allegations of grade fraud, stood behind reporters.
Later, he He complained that he got the audit report the same time as reporters and said of Maxwell and Eubanks, “They didn’t invite us to this.”
He added, “Our board chair and our superintendent are celebrating, saying ‘There was no direct link between us and graduating students who don’t make the requirements.’ … They did not take responsibility for potentially defrauding almost 1,000 students of an education. … The numbers speak for themselves.”
He noted the jump in the graduating seniors who didn’t meet the requirement from 3.6 percent in 2016 to 6 percent this year. “What incentive would a teacher have, a guidance counselor have, a principal have, to engage in this behavior?”
Burroughs said he and board member David Murray would hold a news conference of their own on Monday to announce their “next steps.”
WTOP’s Rick Massimo and Kate Ryan contributed to this report.
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