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Statement on Reporting about Allegations of Grade Changing

In August 2017, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s “Project Baltimore” series on Fox 45’s evening news began reporting on allegations that grades at some schools had been improperly changed to inflate student achievement and reduce rates of failure and retention. That September, Sinclair’s reporter requested reports of grade-change investigations conducted since 2010 and then, in November 2017, the record from an investigation at one specific school. We believe he will be reporting on this topic again in the coming weeks.

Because we have had concerns about mischaracterizations, inaccuracies, and the sensational approach of past Project Baltimore stories, we are sharing this detailed report of what has taken place in the past months, so the City Schools community and the public as a whole will have correct, complete information.

Action Taken to Ensure Grading Integrity

It is most important to note first that, as we have said consistently since these allegations were made almost two years ago, we take the integrity of grades extremely seriously. If grades do not accurately reflect what students have achieved, teachers cannot provide the instruction and support each student needs to succeed. That goes against our commitment to every student and family we serve, and it does a serious disservice to students who may be inadequately prepared for the next step on their academic path.

When the allegations were made in the Project Baltimore reporting as the 2017-18 school year was getting under way, we took the following steps:

  • Principals received detailed guidance regarding the circumstances when grade changes were permissible and the process for changing grades 
  • Mandatory training was instituted for grade reporters
  • CEO Sonja Santelises sent a message to all staff on the requirement for integrity in grade reporting
  • Data from all schools were analyzed, and investigations were launched into five high schools where 15 percent or more of the past year’s graduating class had grade changes related to meeting graduation requirements

There are valid reasons that grades may be changed after a teacher first records them: For example, a student may have done make-up work that should be included, an assignment or test may have been left out by accident, a child on long-term medical absence may be doing work through an alternative program, or a mathematical error might need to be corrected. The vast majority of grade changes are made for these and similarly legitimate purposes.

It is also important to note that taken together, our analysis and investigations show that City Schools does not have a systemic problem with improper grade changing. 

Investigations and Sinclair’s Legal Action 

As noted above, Sinclair’s reporter requested reports of investigations into grade changing conducted from 2010 to Fall 2017. Our practice in investigations is to keep details confidential. As a public agency, we are guided by principles of transparency and accountability, but we also have responsibilities and legal obligations to protect the privacy of our students and families and to maintain the confidentiality of staff records. In addition, we believe that if staff and other members of our community are not confident we can protect their privacy, they will be less likely to alert us to potential improper activity and less candid during the course of investigations. This will impede our ability to determine whether illegal or inappropriate activity has occurred and to take legal or disciplinary action when warranted.

For these reasons, we declined to provide information to the reporter regarding the investigations. Sinclair Broadcast Group then filed a lawsuit against the district in December 2017, alleging violation of Maryland’s Public Information Act. Because of the seriousness of our concerns about confidentiality, we chose to defend our position in court. Unfortunately, the judge’s ruling in March this year was not in our favor and extended beyond the requested investigations to all documents and records in which any terms related to grade changing occur. This has compelled our staff to review tens of thousands of documents, and so far more than 71,000 pages have been released to the law firm representing Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Again because of frequent mischaracterizations included in past stories and Project Baltimore’s often sensational approach, we have declined to give on-camera interviews to the Sinclair reporter about this matter. At this time, we plan to continue to decline.

Findings of Improper Actions

Investigations typically include a thorough review of all relevant data and documents, along with interviews with those who may have been involved in or have information about the investigation’s subject. If the investigation concludes that improper activity took place, a hearing is held by the district’s Human Capital Office with the staff members involved. At the end of this process, if the allegation is upheld, appropriate disciplinary action is taken, depending on the nature and severity of the findings and any mitigating circumstances. This can range from a formal reprimand in a personnel file to termination of employment.

The original story broadcast on Fox 45 in August 2017 alleged grade changing at NACA II, a middle/high school. Our investigation did not discover evidence of improper activity at the school. 

Of the ten investigations into grade changing originally identified following the reporter’s Fall 2017 inquiry, only three revealed that improper grade changing had occurred. 

  • At Calverton Elementary/Middle School, also the subject of Project Baltimore reports, we discovered that in the 2016-17 school year, some staff members did not understand policies about grading or holding students back, policies were poorly or wrongly communicated, and some staff did not follow the required procedures for entering or changing grades. Some grades were improperly changed, including changes from failing to passing. In some cases, the students whose grades were changed had not been given opportunities throughout the year to improve their work and their parents had not been informed about what support was being provided. The motivation to change grades seems to have been the belief that students should not be penalized with a failing grade if extra help was not provided. While supporting students is the most important thing we do as teachers, changing grades for this reason is against district policies as it results in grades that do not accurately reflect what students have learned. Appropriate action was taken as a result of the investigation’s findings.
  • At a second elementary/middle school, a staff member was found to have engaged in misconduct in the 2012-13 school year by changing student records to include grades for a class that had not been taught. The school was lacking a teacher for a particular subject, so rather than penalize the students, the staff member inserted grades for the missing class that had been earned in a similar subject. The staff member has not been employed by City Schools since 2013. 
  • At a middle school also in 2012-13, a staff member was found to have engaged in misconduct when changing some students’ failing grades to passing. This staff member has not been employed by City Schools since 2013.

Subsequent to the court ruling requiring us to identify grade changing beyond the scope of the original Fall 2017 request from the reporter, we have identified three additional investigations in which grade changing played a role. In two of the three, grade changing was found to have occurred.

  • At one elementary/middle school in 2012-13, an employee changed grades for a single student to whom the employee was related. 
  • At one middle/high school in 2010-11, an employee violated district policy when validating some seniors’ graduation status. The employee has not been employed by the district since the finding.

As noted above, following the 2017 analysis of data from all schools, investigations were launched into five high schools where 15 percent or more of the past year’s graduating class had grade changes related to graduation requirements. None of the investigations found that grades had been improperly changed. We will soon be releasing these investigations to Sinclair Broadcast Group, along with all other grade-change investigations completed since Fall 2017. In these latest investigations, one was inconclusive and the remainder found allegations to be unsubstantiated as pertaining to improper grade changing.

Confidence in Accuracy of Grades

In sum, in nine years across more than 170 schools, allegations of improper grade changing have been substantiated in five cases. While this is five too many, it clearly does not indicate widespread, systemic abuse or improper activity.

As we reach the end of the 2018-19 school year, we are committed to ensuring that students, families, teachers, and the entire City Schools community can be confident that the grades shown on final report cards reflect students’ achievement. In addition to the steps taken with respect to ensuring that any grade changes are made for legitimate reasons according to documented procedures, this year we have updated our grading regulations to ensure consistency across the district. With your continued support, our students will head into the summer months knowing what they accomplished this year and ready for success in the future, whether in a new school year ahead or, for our graduating seniors, wherever their postsecondary plans may take them.

Members of the public who have questions about grading policy, promotion and retention policy, or grade changing should contact their school principal or the College and Career Readiness Department in the district’s Academics Office. Anyone who suspects improper grade changing—or any improper activity—should report it to our fraud hotline at 1-800-679-0185. Reports can be made anonymously.