In 2016, Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. made headlines; every one of their 164 seniors had not only graduated, but had been accepted into college. A 100-percent success rate for the school, on the surface. But a closer look, taken in a joint investigation by WAMU and NPR, saw that many of Ballou’s happy graduates should not have walked across that stage. According to attendance records, more than half of the students had missed more than six solid weeks of class and 20 percent had been absent more than half of the entire school year. In other words, these students were being allowed to graduate despite their chronic absenteeism.

In D.C. school districts, official policy is that any student with 30 absences or more shouldn’t be allowed to graduate. By those standards, fewer than sixty of Ballou’s seniors were actually eligible. Teachers reported being pressured to find ways to pass students despite violations. In the end, Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves, was placed on administrative leave.

Sparked by these findings, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser directed the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) to take a hard look at all of the city’s schools. Their initial findings are concerning, to say the least. It seems that chronic absenteeism in D.C. schools is rampant, and students are being graduated anyway.

“The huge investments we have made in our schools only work if students are sitting in the seats,” Bowser said at a news conference on Tuesday, January 16.

Morgan Williams, a physical education teacher at Ballou, told NPR about rosters full of students she only saw at the end of term, when she would be pressured by school administrators into giving them makeup work so they could record a passing grade despite flagrant ignorance of the attendance policy. Other teachers there reported being required to give students at least 50% on assignments they missed entirely.

This kind of academic fraud is meant to make a struggling school look good. Ballou used it to the extent of attracting national attention. Hopefully, that spotlight will be good for all of D.C.’s schools as it causes them to be investigated around chronic absenteeism and reformed.

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