Washington, DC’s high school graduation rate is projected to drop by as much as 31% this year, with just 42% of seniors currently on track to receive a diploma. From the Washington Post:

Data released Thursday by D.C. Public Schools show that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools are on track to graduate, while 19 percent are considered “moderately off-track,” meaning they could still earn enough credits to earn a diploma.

The likely drop in the graduation rate is the latest fallout from an investigation that cast doubt on the validity of diplomas awarded last year. The graduation rate in 2017 was 73 percent, but the probe revealed that one in three graduates received their diplomas in violation of city policy. Those students had walked across the graduation stage despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes.

That investigation mentioned above started with a story published by WAMU, which found one high school was handing out diplomas as if they were participation trophies except that many of the kids receiving them weren’t even participating.

An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school…

When many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically.

“I’ve never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write,” said Butcher, who has more than two decades of teaching experience in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw students like that at Ballou — and it wasn’t just one or two…

WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers as well as four recent graduates who told the same story: teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.

“It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success,” said a current Ballou teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

That WAMU story led to an investigation by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education which found the practice of giving diplomas to absent students wasn’t limited to one school.

More than 1 of every 10 students receiving a diploma from a D.C. public high school last year missed most of the academic year, according to an investigation released Tuesday that casts a shadow on a district that has trumpeted improvements in graduation rates.

So with the spotlight on DC high schools, the expected graduation rate for this year has dropped substantially, wiping out the alleged gains of the last several years. Students who miss more than 30 days of class in a single year will no longer be allowed to graduate. And the 42% rate who are on track to graduate is an average. The worst performing school in the district, Anacostia high school, expects just 19% of seniors to graduate (another 25% could graduate with additional work). There were hints that DC had a problem even before the WAMU investigation. From a story on soaring graduations rates published last November by the Washington Post:

The rise in graduation rates comes as test scores in the District continue to improve, but fewer than one-third of students rated college- or career-ready last year. The gap between the graduation rate and test scores has concerned some experts, who worry the District is handing out diplomas to students who are not ready for postsecondary education or the workforce.

As WAMU’s story suggested, the result of setting low expectations is that students quickly figure out they don’t have to do much to get by:

“These students are smart enough to see enough what goes on,” Brokenborough said. “They go ‘Oh, I ain’t gotta do no work in your class, I can just go over here do a little Powerpoint, pass and graduate.’ Again this isn’t about the teachers. What is that doing to that child? That’s setting that kid up for failure just so you can showboat you got this graduation rate.”…

One graduate of a DC school described college classes as having reality slap him in the face:

“I’m not going to say I always went to class or I was always a good student because I wasn’t,” he said, but he took honors courses and wanted to be at school. He now attends a four-year university outside the Washington area. He knew college would be hard, and he even enrolled in a summer program at his college designed to help low-income, underrepresented students prepare for their first semester. But when he got to college, he said: “I had reality slapped in the face.”

Handing diplomas to students who can’t read or do high school math is not helping those students, it’s hurting them. It’s a shame that so many adults in the DC school system were willing to go along with this and hand out these make-believe diplomas. Hopefully, awareness of the actual failure that is taking place will spur some change.