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Education

Maryland education watchdog calls for audit of Baltimore City high schools over grade changing

Maryland’s Inspector General for Education is calling on the state’s Department of Education to authorize a performance audit of the Baltimore City school system after investigators found inconsistencies in grading practices.

Inspector General for Education Richard Henry released a 28-page report Tuesday detailing his office’s examination of grading policies for the school system that enrolls an estimated 78,000 students. The report describes differing interpretations, applications and adherence to grade change procedures among high school staff.

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The investigation centered largely on practices among teachers, assistant principals and principals of rounding up grades when a student was within one to three percentage points of passing. The minimum passing grade for a city school student is 60%. While Baltimore City school system policy states about 70% of a student’s grade is based on assignments and tests, the remaining 30% is discretionary — meaning schools have a lot of leeway to decide the criteria.

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Investigators focused on Baltimore City high schools since grading policies at the elementary and middle school levels use “incomplete” to record failing grades. Officials identified more than 12,500 instances across the system where grades were changed from a fail to a pass between 2016 and the end of the 2019-20 school year. Data for the 2019-20 school year is incomplete, but changes recorded before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when school systems decided to advance students at the end of the school year were included in the investigation.

Grade changes can happen for a variety of reasons, Baltimore City’s Chief of Schools John Davis told investigators, according to the report. Davis oversees principals and daily classroom instruction.

A student may work with their teacher to complete assignments or take extra steps to demonstrate they understand the material. Another reason could be missed grading deadlines or long-term reliance on substitute teachers, who don’t have access to the grading system.

The key question, Davis said, is whether the student and teacher worked together to understand the material and whether the student earned the grade.

“We have to trust our teachers and principals to be able to do that because there are just different situations,” he told investigators.

Still, investigators found that some principals and assistant principals directed educators to automatically bump all 58% and 59% grades up to a passing, according to redacted emails included in the report.

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The report does not delve into grade changes that occurred at levels higher than a failure, such as from 89% to 90%. And it was not immediately clear how the blanket policies of rounding up failing grades impacted matriculation or graduation rates.

In a statement, Baltimore City School System called the report a “perplexing end to a nearly three-year review of grade changes in our school system.”

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City school officials said they cooperated with the Office of the Inspector General for Education by sharing data, documents and scheduling interviews with staff. And the statement notes that city schools CEO Sonja Santelises had launched an overhaul of the grading policy, which prompted the board of school commissioners to adopt a new version in May 2019.

Officials defended the school system, stating that incidents cited in the report largely occurred before the policy change in 2019 and “did not illustrate systemwide pressure to change grades. Investigators did not find violation of the law or financial improprieties, the statement notes.

System leaders said they welcome an external review of grade changes made during the 2022-23 school year. The system has until June 29 to submit a response or rebuttal to the inspector general’s report.

The state’s education watchdog launched the investigation in September 2020 after fielding several complaints and allegations of systemic grade changes, including from the state’s now defunct Office of Education Accountability. The office fell under the purview of the governor’s Office for Children, which was closed in June 2020. The report also noted Fox45′s coverage in 2019 of grading inconsistencies at one city school.

According to the inspector general’s report, some employees were reluctant to speak with investigators, which delayed the investigation for an unspecified amount of time. Investigators interviewed top executives, former and current teachers, administrative staff and managers as well as reviewed student data, records and grade change forms.

For the record

This story has been updated to correct the number of instances where a failing grade was changed to a passing grade to approximately 12,500. The Sun regrets the error.


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