SEABROOK – Local leaders are seeing a lot of smoke coming from Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) as a small coalition on the school board alleges that there is widespread graduation fraud, but the school system’s chief executive officer (CEO) claims the allegations are not evidence of fire, but just smoke and mirrors. Maryland […]
SEABROOK – Local leaders are seeing a lot of smoke coming from Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) as a small coalition on the school board alleges that there is widespread graduation fraud, but the school system’s chief executive officer (CEO) claims the allegations are not evidence of fire, but just smoke and mirrors.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the Prince George’s County House Delegation and four members of the county board of education are calling for an independent and thorough investigation into claims that PGCPS’ raising graduation rates are due to changed, inflated and fraudulent grades and student records.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to responsibility,” said Raaheela Ahmed, one of the boardmembers leading the accusations. “People came (to us) with concerns and it got to the point where real information from folks was very concerning for us and, as least for me, got me to seriously suspect graduation rate increases.”
In a letter to the governor, state attorney general and state superintendent, dated May 30, boardmembers Edward Burroughs, III, David Murray and Ahmed, along with former student member Juwan Blocker, asked for the state to look into “widespread systematic corruption” in PGCPS.
The alteration of student credits and grades were specifically pointed out as evidence in the claim that keenly alleges that corruption began in the tenure of the current CEO of schools, Kevin Maxwell, who has touted graduation rate increases as one of the most notable achievements in his time with PGCPS.
Burroughs and Ahmed both said they heard several antidotes of students passing classes and graduating despite having high absenteeism and not completing assignments.
“These actions, which alter the much touted student graduation rate, are occurring across the school system leading us to believe that there are accomplices and complicity at the highest levels of the school system,” the letter reads, alleging that employees are even assigned to manipulate student records.
Donna Young, a resident and advocate in Prince George’s County, said she has personal experience with such allegations, claiming that her nephew’s grades and records were changed.
“Based on board policy, action should have been taken with his mom,” she said. “Instead they went in and altered my nephew’s attendance record.”
Young said correspondence with the teacher shows directly that her nephew’s overall grade was changed because he “made great strides,” despite not attending class.
“Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the students are doing something wrong. No, our students didn’t cheat; our administration is cheating our students,” Young said.
And that is just one of dozens of stories Ahmed, Burroughs, Murray and Blocker have heard and listened to over the past several months. Ahmed said the group had somewhere around two dozen whistleblowers make a case to them before they decided to take action.
That decision to take action did not come lightly, Burroughs said.
“Allegations as serious as this, we say ‘show us,’ ‘let me talk to other people.’ And we went from school to school and place to place and from whistleblower to whistleblower and it became very clear that we are graduating students who don’t make the requirements and there have been grade changes with or without the consent of a teacher,” he said. “I do not take these allegations lightly. I was horrified when I reviewed the evidence.”
However, the move to bring the allegations to the attention of the state government did not come without severe backlash. The other members of the board of education signed a letter condemning the allegations, while Maxwell and a coalition of high school principals each penned letters of a similar regard.
The letter from the remaining boardmembers was not sent to the small coalition, but was instead addressed to the community. It noted increasing enrollment, improved test scores, raising teacher recruitment and increased graduation rates as successes of the school system in recent years and said they were the result of hard work and changed policies.
It also claimed the board had no evidence of a widespread “systematic corruption” and asked for Murray, Ahmed and Burroughs to resign from their posts if no evidence is found or if no investigation is held.
“We note that graduation rates have risen in districts across the state and if the Maryland Department of Education (MSDE) decides to investigate, we ask that it is done in the context of all districts,” the letter reads.
Graduation rates have indeed risen both in Prince George’s County and in the state of Maryland since 2012. Over the last four years, including before Maxwell’s tenure, PGCPS’ rate has risen nearly 10 percentage points from 72.87 percent to 81.44, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.
During that same period the state as a whole rose from 83.57 percent to 87.61, an approximate 4-percentage point gain, but PGCPS saw the largest gains throughout the state. However, it is worth noting that the county had the most room to grow beside Baltimore City, which had a 66.5 percent graduation rate in 2012.
However, in the same amount of time, Baltimore City only increased by 4 percentage points, Baltimore County rose 6, Charles County, 2.3 and Montgomery County, 2.4.
But Maxwell said PGCPS’ gains are not the result of fraud or a grand scheme to pass students who haven’t met their requirements. Instead, he said the gains are a direct result of the hard work from the school system’s teachers and staff and the Data Wise system that helps schools track student progress and target students who are falling behind and are in need of additional supports.
And graduation rates are not the only gains PGCPS has made in the past several years. As alluded to in the board and CEO’s letters, the school system has seen increased enrollment, but has also enjoyed a decreased high school drop-out rate as it fell from 18.5 percent in 2012 to just under 14 percent in 2016. During the same period there was a 12 percentage-point increase in ninth grade promotions into 10th grade and increases in “Higher Level” scores on International Baccalaureate assessments.
At the same time, Advanced Placement and ACT scores have remained largely the same, scores in state math assessments have dipped slightly with a 0.5 percentage drop, and SAT composite scores have dropped from 1,273 in 2012 to 1,185 in 2016, according to state data. SAT scores, though, have been decreasing for PGCPS since 2008.
Still, progress as the result of hard work was the message a coalition of PGCPS high school principals sent into the community both through a letter and during public comment at the June 22 board meeting.
“There’s nothing magical about our methods and no shortcuts to our success. Here’s how we did it: high schools have goals that support a laser-like focus on ninth-grade promotion and graduation rates. Teachers and staff are using the proper systems and supports in place, such as our grading and reporting policy, to promote student achievement,” Eleanor Roosevelt High School Principal Reginald McNeill said in a letter sent on behalf of the principals. “Principals monitor our student data through early warning indicators, which utilize multiple sources of data to identify interventions and supports tailored to each student’s needs. PGCPS developed and implemented specialized teams to closely monitor student withdrawal data, so that we could help youth get through high school successfully.”
The letter went on to call the accusations insulting and said they will cause “unspeakable damage” as the allegations will cast doubt on the validity of a PGCPS diploma.
Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association, said these accusations are also having an effect on teachers.
“Number one, teachers don’t change grades. The change form says’ ‘principals signature’ on it and ‘school system intervention team.’ So our teachers are kind of upset because when grade changes are made, they’re really not in our hands,” Dudley said. “If there is an accusation of something going wrong, we’re just doing what they’re telling us to do.”
Another factor is recent changes to the grading policies both in the county and state, which has left both teachers and parents frustrated over the 50 percent minimum grade on assignments. There is also immense pressure on teachers to make sure their students achieve.
Dudley said 50 percent of teacher’s evaluations are based on test scores and principals face further pressure because they are responsible for the success of the whole school. But she said that does not change the fact that teachers are working extremely hard to help students learn and to support them.
“When I talk about teachers staying until 11, 12, one o’clock at night, writing recommendations for students, that’s real,” she said.
Maxwell pointed to a previous investigation into possible graduation fraud that was completed just this January. That investigation’s report concluded that “there was not anything done to indicate that grades had been manipulated” after the investigator, Carol Williamson, interviewed five PGCPS employees on Jan. 9.
“At the conclusion of our meeting I asked (Maxwell) to identify others with whom I could talk. I asked to talk with the principals’ supervisors for the two high schools, with someone involved in grade collection on transcripts, with someone responsible for school counselors, etc,” Williamson wrote. “On Jan. 9, 2017, I traveled to PGCPS and spent several hours interviewing five individuals. I spent 30 to 45 minutes each with an instructional director, a data management and strategy analyst, a special project officer, a deputy superintendent, and the chief executive officer.”
Burroughs, Murray and Ahmed said they were not previously aware of the investigation and said the board should have been informed when it happened, but both Burroughs and Ahmed said previous knowledge of the investigation would not have changed their actions.
“We’re convinced that something is going on that should not be going on… and you can’t solve issues unless you address the core problem,” Ahmed said. “If I knew there was an investigation at all, perhaps that would have been the time to have whistleblowers come forward.”
Still, Burroughs expected this type of response, which is why he said he did not bring the allegations directly to the board, and despite an MSDE investigation that he thinks was not thorough or fair, he still believes the state education department can and should be trusted with a new investigation.
“I have no confidence in this board and this board’s leadership,” he said. “Before my colleagues asked me to produce a single record or document, they wrote a statement saying it’s not true. How dare you insult the integrity of our whistleblowers and employees all across the system to dispel something that you have not done your due diligence to research.”
And in the end, Burroughs said, he and the two other board members are not accusing every school of changing grades of every student, but even if there is only a dozen cases – that’s a dozen cases too many.
“I think that the evidence is so significant that it would be impossible for anyone who cared about kids to turn a blind eye and I have to believe that MSDE will be thorough. It’s my only other choice, what else can I do,” he said.
Several members of the community shared the desire to have PGCPS investigated for possible fraud as they gathered at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro to protest before the June 22 meeting.
During that meeting Maxwell emphasized that he had not sent any directive to schools to change grades or bolster graduation rates, but it was clear the county residents gathered did not believe him.
“I’m frustrated over the fact that this administration is quick to deny rather than investigate allegations that are brought forth,” Young said.
Dudley agreed and said it does not look good when the authority “rebuffs” people who question it.
“I do think that this was very sensationalized. However I do think that it bears investigating, to preserve the integrity of what we are doing here,” she said. “Let them look. If nobody’s doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.”