August 3, 2011
A high school that posted suspicious swings in graduation rates in recent years is under investigation for giving students credits they didn’t earn.
Teachers and other staff members at A. Philip Randolph High School said they blew the whistle after seeing administrators abuse a practice that allows students to quickly make up credits in classes that they previously failed.
Department of Education officials said the Office of Special Investigations began probing A. Philip Randolph last month after Chancellor Dennis Walcott received several emails earlier this summer alleging illicit use of the practice, known as “credit recovery,” to artificially improve the school’s graduation numbers. After years of mediocre performance, the school’s graduation rate increased nearly 30 points two years ago and was one of the city’s highest.
This year, with less than a week before graduation day, school administrators ordered guidance counselors to enroll all failing seniors into online credit recovery courses so that they could graduate on time, one of the counselors said. She said the courses were crammed into one or two days and often went unsupervised.
When she and the school’s programming coordinators protested to administrators, they were rebuffed, the guidance counselor said.
“I said to them, ‘That is not right,’” she said. “You’re asking us to do something unethical.”
One teacher said he observed a group of credit recovery students huddled around a computer, searching online for the answers to test questions.
Another teacher, Joyce Stena, said one of her students attended her chemistry class so infrequently that the student not only failed the course but was declared ineligible to take the Regents exam.
And although state law requires students to pass Regents exams in order to earn course credits, Stena’s student still managed to graduate because she was enrolled in a credit recovery course.
“It’s frustrating,” Stena said. “What kind of message does that send to the rest of the students?”
Stena’s frustration crystallizes the controversy around credit recovery, an old practice with a new name that went unregulated in schools for years.
When used properly, education officials praise the policy as an opportunity to help students catch up on a few narrowly-missed credits in order to earn a diploma that they might not pursue after their senior year. Many of the courses are condensed and shortened and target specific areas where a student is deficient.
But credit recovery has come under increasing scrutiny as schools have experienced intense pressure to push students toward graduation, and in particular after the city began judging high schools in 2007 based in part on how many credits its students accumulate.
Amid mounting concerns, last year state education officials issued formal regulations for how schools should use credit recovery. Those regulations went into effect during the 2010-2011 school year and for the first time the DOE required schools to track credit recovery courses on student transcripts. Results from that data could be released as early as September, a spokesman said.
The data, which will show how widespread the use of credit recovery is, could challenge the credibility of the higher graduation rates that have taken place during the Bloomberg administration.
Critics of credit recovery say the pressures of accountability have induced widespread abuse of the practice in the city school system. Rather than providing a safety net for the few students for whom speedy makeup sessions would be appropriate, opponents say, the practice has merely allowed principals to inflate graduation rates and graduate students who are not ready for college. Less than a quarter of city graduates are well prepared for college, according to state data released in Feburary.
“This is an official recognition of lowered standards for academic credit,” said David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College law professor who specializes in education policy.
And many teachers, including those at A. Philip Randolph who sounded the alarm about abuses there, say the policy diminishes their work in the classroom.
The investigation into the school came after Walcott publicly invited teachers to contact him directly if they thought cheating was going on in their schools.
Henry Rubio, A. Philip Randolph’s principal since 2006, did not respond to several phone calls and email messages seeking comment.
The DOE is also conducting a larger sweep of audits that began in February. The audits target schools that have shown suspicious trends on its testing and graduation data.
A Philip Randolph, which opened in 1979 on the City College campus, seems to fit that profile. Two years ago, the school achieved a remarkable one-year gain in its graduation rate — climbing 30 percentage points to 86 percent. Last year, the graduation rate plummeted to 71 percent.
What upsets Stena the most, she said, is that students she is accountable for are being passed even if they don’t deserve it.
“If you want to hold me accountable, then you have to leave me alone,” she said. “Not go behind my back and pass students that I fail.”