For years, D.C. Public Schools officials have used rising test scores and unbelievably strong graduation-rate gains as proof that district reforms are paying off. However, a combination of fraud and flagrant violation of district policies by high-school and district administrators casts doubt about that progress and limit the public’s ability to separate hype from headway. These officials must be held accountable.

In November, NPR reported that many 2017 graduates of D.C.’s Ballou High School had excessive absences or were provided unwarranted opportunities to make up for failed classes, either of which should have made them ineligible to graduate. Shocking preliminary results of an audit of all D.C. public high school’s attendance and graduation outcomes, released last week, show the problem is widespread.

In 2017, almost one-third of DCPS graduates missed at least 30 percent of their final year of high school — or 54 days of instruction. About 11 percent missed half the year. District policy requires that students missing 30 days of class without an excuse fail the course, but DCPS graduated 88 percent of students missing 54 days and 49 percent of those who missed half the year. By comparison, D.C. charter high schools were exacting, graduating 47 percent of students who missed 54 days, and none who were absent half the year.

The sky-high absenteeism of DCPS graduates means those unbelievable graduation gains are just that. DCPS reported a 73 percent graduation rate for 2017, up 4 points in one year, and up 20 points since 2011. The rate would be about 65 percent if the students missing half the school year had not been allowed to graduate. It would slump to 51 percent if students who missed 54 school days — almost one in three graduates — weren’t given diplomas.

Absences were not the only issue revealed in the audit. In clear violation of DCPS policy, credit recovery courses — condensed and often dumbed-down versions of courses that students take to meet requirements for graduation — were given to students who had not yet failed or even taken the original courses. Shockingly, the recent report revealed DCPS Central Office official emails encouraging high school staff to violate district policy, proving that efforts to artificially boost graduation rates occurred at both the school and the district level.

D.C. is not the only city eroding requirements in return for better graduation rates. Prince George’s County, Md., made thousands of late-year grade changes, often violating district policy but increasing the past two year’s graduation rates. Chicago pushed failing students into alternative schools in an administrative shell game that boosted its graduation rate by 4 points, a record high. In 2015, nearly half of Camden, N.J., graduates received diplomas despite failing both required high school exit exams. And Los Angeles used credit recovery programs to pull its predicted graduation rate from 52 percent in March to an astonishing 82 percent in June.

And the list goes on.

Bogus graduation rates harm students, schools, and the public. The lack of clear delineation between schools making progress and those faking it leaves them all looking complicit. That’s a shame when some DCPS schools are improving, as evidenced by standardized test scores gains that are far harder to fake than graduation rates. No doubt some high schools are likewise doing the tough work of getting more students to actually earn a diploma, but bad apples are robbing our ability to know which schools those are.

The “soft bigotry of low expectations” in these corrupt schools gives graduates more than a counterfeit diploma: They also get the message that they need not excel, work, or even show up regularly. This moral hazard hurts not only the students who brazenly take advantage of it, but also the students seduced by an easy way out who will be unprepared to deal with real demands in college or the workforce. It also shortchanges those who showed up and worked hard, only to receive the same diploma as their shirking peers.

Who is really to blame? Many will lay these problems at the feet of demanding school accountability structures that tie school performance to lofty and often preposterous expectations. Such criticisms may have merit, but they don’t relieve the school and district officials’ culpability for willingly breaking their common-sense policies to pad their numbers.

As it is in other professions — medicine, law, or automobile manufacturing — fraud and deception in public education should be met with apt professional, civil, and criminal consequences. In 2009, Atlanta public school teachers and principals caught changing student answers on state tests were fired, and some were jailed. Knowingly violating common sense policies to produce phony graduation numbers must be met with strict accountability, with all punishment options on the table.

Is this harsh? Maybe. But is systematically changing test answers any worse than systematically turning high schools into diploma mills? We cannot hope to improve school systems, or the lives of their students, unless we are willing to demand those at the helm make actual progress, rather than just pretending to.

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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