A highly touted program created a few years ago by the Alabama Department of Education has been abused by two different school systems, which should raise serious questions about the credibility of the program statewide.
The state's credit recovery program allows students who fail a course to get credit for it by showing proficiency in only the portions of the course content they failed to master, rather than repeating the entire course. It is not designed as a substitute for taking the course, so students who have grades lower than a 40 on a scale of 100 should not be allowed to use credit recovery.
But a recent and still ongoing investigation into improper grade-changing in Montgomery Public Schools found a pattern of abuses of the state's credit-recovery program.
And now an investigation that started as a probe of allegations of sexual abuse in Selma City Schools also has found abuses of the credit recovery program, as well as problems with school officials allegedly not following graduation requirements.
That should lead the public to wonder if finding abuses in the two systems which have been investigated would raise concerns from state administrators about whether similar problems existed in the state's other local school systems.
Apparently, not so much.
In response to questions, State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice said: "There are 135 school systems in Alabama. These investigations indicate there may have been misuse in two of them and we are actively and aggressively addressing the problem areas. The overwhelming majority of local school systems seem to use the program for the purpose it was intended – providing better, practical education opportunities for students with very specific needs."
Asked if the State Department of Education will consider new security measures or other checks and balances to ensure such programs are not abused in other systems, Bice said: "Local school systems have administrators who are responsible for the accuracy and appropriate use of programs such as credit recovery. They take the security and professionalism of these program very seriously and by and large do a great job at making sure all school resources are used in a manner that is consistent with which they are designed."
Bice added: "Again, as we monitor our schools and school systems and identify issues, we address them individually."
To Bice's credit and to the credit of the SDE, state officials have taken strong steps against both the Montgomery County and the Selma city systems.
In the case of the Montgomery system, state officials stopped just short of a full takeover of the system, bringing in state officials to "monitor" the academic program in MPS and requiring the system to undergo a full-scale audit of academic practices. That audit is still ongoing.
The uproar over the scandal prompted the Montgomery County Board of Education to seek Superintendent Barbara Thompson's resignation. She and the board ultimately reached a "mutual agreement" for her to leave.
In addition, the State Department of Education has scheduled hearings for six current or former MPS employees -- a former assistant superintendent, two principals and an assistant principal, and two teachers that could lead to the possible revocation or non-renewal of their teaching certificates.
Selma school officials also have been told to expect an academic audit in the near future.
Assuming that similar action will be taken against school employees in Selma if findings warrant it, then the reaction of the state to these allegations should send a strong message to school administrators across the state that not following credit recovery and graduation guidelines will not be tolerated.
Harsh action is justified, because the alleged abuses in Montgomery and Selma schools could completely undermine academic integrity and public confidence if not strongly addressed.
The initial news coverage of the Selma City Schools scandal focused on allegations of sexual improprieties, as well it should have. Such abuses should not be tolerated anywhere, but especially in a school setting.
But correspondence between the State Department of Education and Selma school officials also show strong concern about abuses of credit recovery and graduation standards.
In fact, the correspondence is highly reminiscent of correspondence between the state and Montgomery Public Schools.
Bice wrote Selma superintendent Gerald Shirley: "Our initial findings on these matters call into serious question the school system's commitment to meeting the education needs of its students, and evidence a misdirected and unacceptable emphasis on ‘processing' students rather than preparing them for future educational and career opportunities."
That language is similar to a letter sent in August to MPS administrators in which Bice wrote that "it appears that properly educating students has become subservient to merely advancing them."
In the case of Montgomery schools, among the issues alleged by the state superintendent were:
-- Students were allowed to take a course for the first time in credit/grade recovery, which is not the intent of the program.
-- There was a lack of documentation to support grade changes, and some changes were not signed or signed by someone without the authority to do so.
-- School officials relied on "questionable written materials" -- "much of which appears ungraded" -- to supplement or replace required scores.
-- Students who failed credit recovery tests, or who took no test at all, were given passing grades.
-- Students with grades in a course below 40 were allowed to take credit recovery, and some students who took credit recovery were given a grade higher than a 70 -- both of which violate credit recovery guidelines.
In his letter to the Selma superintendent, Bice wrote that abuses of the credit recovery program led to poor class participation and study habits because students believed they would be allowed to make up courses in just a few days. He also said that there were indications that administrators asked teachers to change grades to promote failing students.
Like Bice, I believe that the majority of local school administrators take credit recovery and graduation standards seriously and administer them professionally. But I also know that when both of the two systems that have been investigated recently have been found to have abused the rules, it should raise questions about whether more safeguards should be in place.
The reaction of state education officials to these academic scandals in two different school systems has, so far, been suitably strong and should be a deterrent to future abuses.
The public should hope that Bice is right and that these two situations are isolated to just two of the state's 135 local school systems.
But school administrators in many of those 135 systems face pressures to improve student promotion and graduation rates. Instead of just reacting to allegations of abuses "individually" as they arise, Bice might be wise to consider a review of state oversight of such programs to help ensure that such abuses don't occur in the first place.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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