Protecting Academic Standards
How My Union Makes It Possible
By Erich Martel
Seeing a student who has just failed a required class walk across the stage on graduation day is a degrading experience that a teacher never forgets. It is compounded when one then discovers that the principal had secretly approved both "erasing" the failing grade and altering the student's official records to make it appear legitimate. Such an act sabotages the integrity of a high school diploma and unravels bonds of teacher-administrator trust.
Those were my thoughts in June 2001, when a student who had just failed my Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History class confidently walked across the stage in her graduation gown—the same morning that she handed me a long overdue, plagiarized research paper, and angrily demanded that I raise her low F to a D.
How did this happen? The assistant principal in charge of senior class grades readily admitted his decision to "average" her F from my yearlong AP class with a C+ she had earned in a one-semester American History course taken two years earlier at an American international school in Ethiopia. He further entered a year's worth of passing grades from an entirely fictional American History class (Section 00!) that she had never taken. The new result: a final grade of D+. He later told the Washington Post, "We're talking about the day before graduation. That's the only thing the child needed to graduate. I thought I was doing the right thing."*
According to the agreement between my union, the Washington Teachers' Union (AFT Local 6), and my district, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), the process of changing a grade requires that the teacher be informed and given an opportunity to "substantiate the grade given"; and further, "in no case shall a grade be changed by the Board," unless the teacher fails to provide such substantiation. I was never given that opportunity. Fortunately, the language of the collective bargaining contract, together with a sharp and aggressive union building representative, made it possible for me to challenge the assistant principal's action.
Following graduation, my union building representative and I met with the principal and assistant principal to demand that the grade I reported be entered in the student's records, the fictitious course be removed, and the student's diploma and transcript be placed on hold pending successful completion of a legitimate U.S. History course, for which there was still time to enroll in summer school.
Although I was led to believe that all of our demands were met, I soon learned that she was not attending summer school and had received a diploma anyway. In exchange for doing an "assignment," the assistant principal released the diploma to the student. I notified the principal, who was shocked and unaware. He requested the return of the diploma, but he refused to require valid completion of a full U.S. History course as a condition for releasing the student's transcript. Instead, he tried to pressure me and the department chair into allowing the student to receive a "packet of assignments" for course credit. The union building rep and I disagreed, but appeals to the principal's superiors were met with silence. The assistant principal, it was later reported, was "disciplined"—and promoted to principal of an elementary school! (Many months later, I saw the student's transcript. The fictitious U.S. History course was gone; along with the final grade of F for my AP U.S. History course, the principal had entered: "Summer, 2001–completed requirements for graduation. Not ranked.")
A couple months later, in August 2001, the principal, surprisingly, gave all Wilson High School teachers read-only access to the Student Information System (SIS), the electronic records database. I checked on a few of my former students whose records I suspected had been altered. Sure enough, they had been. A few other teachers asked me to check some of their grades. I found over a dozen grades that had been changed without teacher authorization.
Over the next several months, I spoke with over 60 of my teacher colleagues. Not one of them asked me not to look at their class lists. Instead, most expressed appreciation that, at last, someone was showing respect for their grading decisions by asking them whether they had authorized the questionable grade changes. Some told of demanding parents who successfully pressured administrators into raising grades. One vividly recalled the disrespect he felt when a student who had rarely attended class tauntingly informed him that the assistant principal had just changed her F to a D. Another teacher learned for the first time that an administrator had yielded to a parent's demand that a generously awarded D be changed to "Passing" so as to boost the student's grade point average and class rank.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Like most teachers, I thought that changing a teacher's grade without following challenge rules was the main procedural way in which the integrity of teacher grades and the sanctity of the diploma were being undermined. I was wrong. As my familiarity with these student records grew, I became aware of an entirely new category of previously unknown violations: awarding credits that hadn't been legitimately earned. Among the ways in which students received these phantom credits were: 1) adding courses to the transcript that were never taken; 2) altering transcripts from previous schools by, for example, boosting grades, inflating credits, changing course titles, and pretending like a course was on the transcript; and 3) allowing students to earn more credit by giving credit two or more times for the same course, giving full-year credit for a semester course, and giving credit for clearly bogus "independent studies" courses. Quite a few students received a diploma despite never having passed or even taken a required course.
Based on my own informal, but thorough, review of 300 students' records, mainly from the class of 2001, but also from 2002, I found 202 inappropriate alterations and requirements not fulfilled. These resulted in 92 students being certified as eligible to receive a diploma despite missing requirements.
I wondered: Why were these alterations happening? How were missing requirements not being noticed? The answer was obvious and shocking: The principal doesn't want them to be noticed, nor does the superintendent, nor do most Board of Education members. Then it struck me: This is how a dysfunctional school hides its failure to educate the majority of its students! Why respond to teachers' requests for an orderly school or for more trained reading teachers when the numbers of graduates can be so easily fixed? If this is happening at Wilson, an acclaimed public high school in Washington, D.C., what does that say about what's happening at other schools?
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In early May 2002, I wrote up my findings for a report to the principal and the superintendent and requested that the school and district records accurately report the credits that each student had actually earned. On the advice of an attorney from the Government Accountability Project who represents whistleblowers, I labeled my reports "protected disclosures," citing my statutory obligation under the 1998 Whistleblower Act. As expected, rather than welcome my report, the principal denied me further access to student records and threatened disciplinary action. I received no response from the superintendent. At that point, I reported my findings and the principal's response to Washington Post reporter Justin Blum and announced my decision in a letter to the faculty. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from my colleagues. Although reluctant to see the school portrayed in a negative light, most saw that the only other option was to let a Wilson High School diploma become a meaningless piece of paper.
The Washington Post article appeared on June 9, 2002, two days before graduation. DCPS's response was far from adequate, but it did contract with an accounting firm, Gardiner Kamya and Associates (GKA), to conduct a review of the records of the 15 Class of 2002 students I had questioned as well as a sampling of records and records-management procedures in all 16 DCPS high schools.
The GKA report was completed in September 2003, but not released until December 2003, following the resignation of the then-superintendent, a close friend of Wilson High School's principal. The examiners affirmed my conclusions regarding 12 of the 15 Class of 2002 graduates I had cited. They also found records management in disarray in almost every high school, suggesting in many cases that tampering could have occurred without being verifiable.
The Significance of the Diploma
The high school diploma, like final course grades, is a summary of performance that attests to the student's successful completion of all supporting standards. A student who receives an unearned diploma has learned all the wrong lessons—and will carry a false sense of "how to get ahead" into adulthood. He will also have a false sense of readiness for higher education or the workplace.
For our high-achieving students, the diploma is often a momentary symbol, soon replaced by a college degree. But for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, for whom the diploma is their only educational credential, its prestige is critical. If a diploma is based on counterfeit grades and fabricated course completions, it will become like a debased currency, with less and less value in the eyes of the community and prospective employers, further dimming these students' chances in life.
The assumption that school administrators are disinterested custodians of student records who can be trusted to protect their integrity fails to recognize their interest in maximizing the number of graduates. In a time of heightened concern over graduation rates, principals have no incentive to ensure that each diploma candidate has met all graduation requirements. Shielded by confidentiality laws and their administrative authority, the tendency to not look too hard for missing requirements faces few restraints.
Five Years Later, Nothing Has Changed
In late March 2006, in an effort to ensure the integrity of the Wilson High School diploma, the Wilson High School union chapter requested that the principal provide the staff with a list of prospective graduates and a list of potential failed classes. When he didn't respond, the chapter asked teachers to submit a list of seniors in danger of failing. Forty-seven teachers, virtually every teacher of seniors, responded with a total of 227 names, which were compiled and submitted to the principal, assistant principals, and counselors. The list was ignored.
It was against this backdrop that I reviewed the records of the class of 2006. The very first transcript showed an inflated credit for a semester math course; then, one or two transcripts later, repeat credit for a course. These were the same violations I had reported in 2002. For days after classes, I reviewed the transcripts and several other supporting documents. The numbers were staggering—I found dozens of examples of credit being given twice for one course, course credits being inflated, required courses never being scheduled, students transferred from failing classes to night school without notifying their teachers, and other serious violations.
In the first two weeks of June, I sent the principal and the superintendent reports on the problems with the transcripts and credits earned of over 180 seniors from the Class of 2006. Unfortunately, I was not surprised when I saw that 90 of those students were on the "official" list of diploma recipients sent to the Board of Education after graduation. At most, a handful of these students could have legitimately completed the requirements necessary to earn a diploma. The rest were clearly given diplomas they did not earn. Five of those "official" graduates are currently enrolled in Wilson High School and another student actually received two diplomas: one from Wilson High School and one from another high school in Washington, D.C.
Although the school system has yet to address this ongoing disregard for academic standards, one important and hopeful development was the decision of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the District of Columbia to audit the records of my high school's Class of 2006. It is a hopeful sign: Because the OIG is independent of the D.C. public schools, it will post the audit results on its Web site and will use the audit results as a guide for auditing other DCPS and charter high schools.
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For all my efforts to restore the meaning and value of the Wilson High School diploma, I've been, in essence, demoted. On August 17th, a week prior to returning to school, I discovered that the principal had taken the three sections of Advanced Placement U.S. History that I had successfully taught for 19 years and transferred them to an uncertified teacher who never taught the subject before. Despite the efforts of the Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker, as well as e-mails from former students, their parents, and my colleagues, the superintendent has yet to rectify the situation. This type of retaliation does not hurt me so much as the students who were looking forward to taking my AP U.S. History classes. Having served as a grader of AP U.S. History essays for the College Board for nine years, I have in-depth knowledge of what students must do to perform well on the exam. For their sake, for my own, and for the lesson in integrity that it might teach my principal, I look forward to teaching AP U.S. History again soon.
As teachers, our professional responsibilities begin with helping our students meet challenging academic standards. Without the union contract, and especially the building representative and rules for grade changes that the contract gives me, I would not have a foundation for opposing the mismanagement that stands in the way of improving my school and increasing the value of its diploma. The union and the contract allow teachers to be agents of accountability and to be professionals in the service of educational integrity.
Erich Martel continues to teach modern world history at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.
*Justin Blum (2002). "Changes In Grades Found at Top School: Teacher's Discovery Prompts D.C. Inquiry, " Washington Post, June 9, 2002, C.01. (back to article)