Maryland education officials plan to rehire a firm that investigated grade-tampering allegations in Prince George’s County public schools for a second, longer review that will examine records for the Class of 2018 and other diploma-related issues.
The State Board of Education voted Tuesday to tap Alvarez & Marsal to look into practices involving attendance, grade changes, course makeup work, records access and graduation as part of a review that would last six months — far longer than the seven weeks allotted for the first examination.
The D.C. firm will also evaluate a plan to correct problems found during the first review. Prince George’s officials had pledged in a 40-page proposal to tighten controls on student records, add training for employees, upgrade technology to improve graduation certification and make changes to a program that allows students to recover from failing grades.
The board’s action comes three weeks after Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of Prince George’s schools, announced he would be leaving Maryland’s second-largest school system amid a string of scandals. He has said he will depart some time after the end of the school year.
“With the change in leadership in Prince George’s County, this is ideal, a real opportunity to make sure that we have a clean slate here, to move forward and have the state feel comfortable that what’s happening on graduation is what we expect — meeting state policy, meeting local policy,” said Andrew Smarick, president of the state board.
A follow-up audit was not unexpected. At a board meeting a few months ago, members supported several major oversight measures, including the additional audit and the assignment of a state employee to monitor district efforts to correct course.
State officials said the projected six-month duration of the new investigation was an estimate. They said they expected a contract will be finalized in 30 to 45 days.
Prince George’s school district officials said Tuesday they had not received information on the state board’s action and had no comment. When the issue of another audit was raised by the state in February, a district spokesman said Maxwell had proposed the same thing as part of the district’s corrective action plan, to ensure academic integrity.
The first audit found nearly 5,500 grade changes in the days before commencement in 2016 and 2017. A sampling of records showed that about 30 percent of students with late grade changes lacked documentation justifying graduation or were clearly ineligible, according to the report.
State board members had questioned Prince George’s officials at length on the audit findings and how they would be fixed.
Maxwell has said the district’s graduation-rate scandal did not result from central office orders and pointed out that the first audit did not find evidence of systemwide fraud or intimidation.
Smarick sounded a brighter note Tuesday.
“The whole process has been discouraging, the things that we learned the first time around, but I’m pretty optimistic about this,” he said. “I think we can learn some good things from the second phase, and I think it will help not just Prince George’s County but hopefully the rest of the state.”
Problems in graduation rates came to light last year, when members of a school board minority bloc said in a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that whistleblowers had come forward with evidence of tampering with grades and credit counts to inflate graduation rates.
Edward Burroughs III, a member of the bloc and critic of Maxwell, applauded the extended timeframe of the new audit. The earlier review “missed a lot,” he said. “I think this will be more thorough.”
Burroughs said he thought that with Maxwell leaving, more employees would step forward.
A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor supported the state board action “to ensure that Prince George’s County students aren’t being cheated out of the education they deserve, and that wrongdoing — especially by those in positions of authority — is exposed.”
Graduation rates were a signature accomplishment for Maxwell, who was given a second contract as CEO in February 2017. He is expected to step down with roughly three years left on his contract. The NAACP and others in Prince George’s oppose a major payout to Maxwell.
The audit is expected to be paid for with money left over from the Maryland State Department of Education’s fiscal year 2018 budget allocation.
Alvarez & Marsal is the same firm that conducted an investigation of graduation rates in D.C. Public Schools, finding that one in three graduates missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes last year, undermining the validity of hundreds of diplomas.
In a statement, Hogan’s spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said:
“Our administration is committed to ensuring all Maryland children have access to a world-class education, and that our school system is truly accountable to our citizens. Governor Hogan supports action by the State Board of Education to ensure that Prince George’s County students aren’t being cheated out of the education they deserve, and that wrongdoing – especially by those in positions of authority – is exposed. The governor joins with parents, teachers, the Prince George’s County NAACP, the county delegation, and numerous local elected officials in demanding a transparent and accountable school system.”
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