UPPER MARLBORO – Both the community and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) are searching for answers after findings released from a current graduation audit found the school system had graduated students who did not meet graduation requirements and that schools are not following PGCPS policies.
The report, released the first week of November, came after seven weeks of investigation into the school system. The investigation was brought on by suspicion of graduation rates due to the growing number of whistle blowers. Earlier this year, four members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, including Edward Burroughs, III, David Murray and Raaheela Ahmed, sent a letter to the governor calling for such an audit. School leadership later asked for the audit as well.
While the investigation did not find evidence of systematic graduation fraud, Kevin Maxwell, chief executive officer of PGCPS, said it did find several errors that troubled him.
“The Maryland State Department of Education’s performance audit findings released today do not support allegations of systemic direction to change grades to artificially increase graduation rates. The auditors also found no financial incentives to change grades, and no evidence of system-wide intimidation or fraud related to the allegations of grade manipulation,” he said. “The audit did identify several errors made at many schools, these findings deeply concern me. We will use these findings to strengthen the school system’s policies, procedures, processes and practices.”
An independent contractor on behalf of the state department of education conducted the audit and created the ensuing report. In the executive summary, Alvarez & Marsal (A&M), the contractor, noted that the audit was conducted not to “follow up on complaints, but to also identify gaps in policies and procedures and internal controls and develop recommendations” so that PGCPS could ensure that only students who have met the requirements graduate.
To perform the audit, the contractors interviewed several stakeholders, PGCPS leadership, staff, student records, the student information system and reviewed a number of state and local policies as well as the complaints made directly by individuals. Through that process, 107 people filed 222 complaints deemed relevant to the audit. Of those, 84 were contacted and followed-up on.
“To identify the sample of the student population to review during school visits, A&M relied on the complaints and an analysis of student grades, grade changes and transcripts in SchoolMAX,” the report reads. “A&M selected and reviewed a sample of 1,212 students from the population of 5,496 students identified as having late grade change increases after final grade entry cutoff dates for seniors.”
Of the 1,212-student sample cumulated from the classes of 2016 and 2017, only 59 students were found to have graduated without “earning sufficient credits to graduate.” However, there was insufficient evidence to say whether 297 students, or nearly 25 percent of the sample, had met the requirements due to “insufficient or no documentation supporting grade changes.”
That means the auditors could not find or obtain the files stating why a student’s grade was changed after the deadline, or the documentation did not exist – a violation of PGCPS policies.
That factors into the four main findings of the audit handed down to the school system.
Those four findings were: 1) There are gaps in PGCPS’s governance structure in as much that the school system does not monitor adherence to system-wide policies and procedures and, in general, trusts school staff to follow those policies without any intervention or verification. Those same policies and procedures were also found to lack clarity and did not lay out penalties for non-compliance nor are they well-communicated to schools.
2) PGCPS staff is not consistent in following policies related to grading and graduation certification, meaning grade entry timelines are not followed and grades are “regularly submitted and changed after quarterly cut-off dates.” The “good faith effort” grading is unevenly applied, policies relating to attendance are not being followed, grade changes are concentrated at the end of senior year, and minimum grade requirements for credit recovery are not met.
3) School level recordkeeping is poor. Grade change authorization forms are not consistently used and were found to be incomplete or missing, and the certification of graduates does not take place until after students graduate.
4) There were irregularities in grade changes, including graduating ineligible students, quarterly grade changes to passing final grades, excessive extra credit for failing students, and manipulation of transcripts after graduation.
Maxwell said PGCPS leadership will work on updating policies and procedures to ensure clarity and compliance in an open letter to the community dated Nov. 3.
“Many of the issues revealed in the audit will be resolved with clearer policies, consistent adherence to those official procedures, better use of technology, improved training and communication, and stricter monitoring,” he wrote. “It is clear that we must act with urgency to reform longstanding practices in our schools. We will fix errors at each level to protect academic integrity, provide more current information through our online parent portal and use technology to more accurately calculate high school credits.”
He also called for the school system to have an additional review in a year to see if PGCPS has made any progress.
While the audit found that approximately 4 percent of the sampled students were in ineligible to graduate, the report noted that because the sample was “selected randomly from the late grade change population of 5,496students, these findings cannot be assumed to hold true to the larger population of 15,215students in the graduating classes of 2016 and 2017.”
“In addition, complaints made during the performance audit included claims of systemic intimidation and fraud directed by PGCPS leadership as it relates to grade changes and graduation rate manipulation,” the report reads. “Based on the interviews and document reviews, A&M noted no evidence of system-wide intimidation by PGCPS leadership or evidence of system-wide fraud as it relates to these allegations.”
However, the report did say there were complaints from educators about implied repercussions for failing too many students and that there is extra paperwork for failing grades.
The audit and its findings were discussed heavily by the Prince George’s County Board of Education at the regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 9. The findings were on the board’s agenda as an emergency item and took the majority of meeting’s time.
“There’s no doubt that each and everyone one of us on the board take this issue extremely seriously and intend to review this audit with a fine-toothed comb and do what it takes to improve our process,” Board Chair Segun Eubanks said.
Several board members made comments about “tightening the ship” and getting to work on solidifying policies. Many talked about gaining back the community trust.
Boardmember Curtis Valentine pointed to a need to keep the community informed about decisions the board and school leadership make.
“It’s clear that what we’re trying doing is in the best interest of students. I don’t think we deny that, but it is clear we have a communication problem,” he said.
On the other hand, Burroughs said he doesn’t believe the current school administration or school board can gain back trust at this point. He said the only way to start earning back trust is being honest.
“If you want to start regaining the trust of the community, you have to start operating differently and be honest about the findings,” he said.
Ahmed said she felt the need to say something that had not yet been expressed by anyone at PGCPS: an apology.
“There is one thing that I do not think has been explicitly expressed by leadership and that’s something that I want to provide today and that is an apology,” she said. “So to the assuredly and presumably hundreds of students that were passed through to graduation, and to the parents of those students that trusted our system to properly educate and not pass their students, and to the teachers and counselors and administration and staff that might have felt obliged to participate in this – what this report shows to me is that this system has failed you and for that I’m sorry.”
Burroughs, in his round of questioning, attempted to find who in school leadership was responsible for the many oversights listed in the report. He asked the members of school leadership if they knew about grade tampering and graduation fraud and went on to ask who is in charge of monitoring compliance with grading policies.
Monique Davis, deputy superintendent of schools, said the school system does not and has not monitored schools for grading compliance, but if they did it would fall under her office.
But other members of the board did not want to start pointing fingers and assigning blame. Boardmember Lupi Quinteros-Grady said she is begging and pleading with the board to start casting aside their differences and start the real work.
“You want to hold anybody accountable? It’s all of us. And we can’t sit up here and blame whoever,” she said. “Everybody in here needs to roll up their sleeves, put differences aside and if we say we’re about these ‘babies,’ let’s do it. Let’s show our communities that that’s what this is about and let’s use this opportunity to pivot in to changing things starting today.”