Ken Hare In Depth: Credibility of state "credit recovery" for students at issue

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A highly toutedprogram created a few years ago by the Alabama Department of Education has beenabused by two different school systems, which should raise serious questionsabout the credibility of the program statewide.

The state'scredit recovery program allows students who fail a course to get credit for itby showing proficiency in only the portions of the course content they failedto master, rather than repeating the entire course. It is not designed as asubstitute for taking the course, so students who have grades lower than a 40on a scale of 100 should not be allowed to use credit recovery.

But a recentand still ongoing investigation into improper grade-changing in MontgomeryPublic Schools found a pattern of abuses of the state's credit-recoveryprogram.

And now an investigation thatstarted as a probe of allegations of sexual abuse in Selma City Schools alsohas found abuses of the credit recovery program, as well as problems withschool officials allegedly not following graduation requirements.

That should lead the public towonder if finding abuses in the two systems which have been investigated wouldraise concerns from state administrators about whether similar problems existedin 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 schoolsystems in Alabama. These investigations indicate there may have been misuse intwo of them and we are actively and aggressively addressing the problem areas.The overwhelming majority of local school systems seem to use the program forthe purpose it was intended – providing better, practical educationopportunities for students with very specific needs."

Asked ifthe State Department of Education will consider new securitymeasures or other checks and balances to ensure such programs are not abused inother systems, Bice said: "Local school systems have administrators whoare responsible for the accuracy and appropriate use of programs such as creditrecovery. They take the security and professionalism of these program veryseriously and by and large do a great job at making sure all school resourcesare used in a  manner that is consistent with which they are designed."

Bice added: "Again, as we monitor our schoolsand school systems and identify issues, we address them individually."

To Bice's credit andto the credit of the SDE, state officials have taken strong steps against boththe Montgomery County and the Selma city systems.

In the case of the Montgomerysystem, state officials stopped just short of a full takeover of the system,bringing in state officials to "monitor" the academic program in MPSand requiring the system to undergo a full-scale audit of academic practices.That audit is still ongoing.

The uproar over the scandalprompted the Montgomery County Board of Education to seek SuperintendentBarbara 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 orformer MPS employees -- a former assistant superintendent, two principals and an assistantprincipal, and two teachers that could lead to the possible revocation ornon-renewal of their teaching certificates.

Selmaschool officials also have been told to expect an academic audit in the nearfuture.

Assumingthat similar action will be taken against school employees in Selma if findingswarrant it, then the reaction of the state to these allegations should send astrong message to school administrators across the state that not followingcredit recovery and graduation guidelines will not be tolerated.

Harshaction is justified, because the alleged abuses in Montgomery and Selma schoolscould completely undermine academic integrity and public confidence if notstrongly addressed.

The initial news coverage of the Selma CitySchools scandal focused on allegations of sexual improprieties, as well itshould have. Such abuses should not be tolerated anywhere, but especially in aschool setting.

But correspondence between the StateDepartment of Education and Selma school officials also show strong concernabout abuses of credit recovery and graduation standards.

In fact, the correspondence ishighly reminiscent of correspondence between the state and Montgomery PublicSchools.

Bice wroteSelma superintendent Gerald Shirley: "Our initial findings on these matterscall into serious question the school system's commitment to meeting theeducation needs of its students, and evidence a misdirected and unacceptableemphasis on 'processing' students rather than preparing them for futureeducational and career opportunities."

That languageis similar to a letter sent in August to MPS administrators in which Bice wrotethat "it appears thatproperly educating students has become subservient to merely advancing them."

Inthe case of Montgomery schools, among the issues alleged by the statesuperintendent were:

-- Students wereallowed to take a course for the first time in credit/grade recovery, which isnot the intent of the program.

-- There was alack of documentation to support grade changes, and some changes were notsigned or signed by someone without the authority to do so.

-- Schoolofficials relied on "questionable written materials" -- "much ofwhich appears ungraded" -- to supplement or replace required scores.

-- Students whofailed credit recovery tests, or who took no test at all, were given passinggrades.

-- Students withgrades in a course below 40 were allowed to take credit recovery, and somestudents who took credit recovery were given a grade higher than a 70 -- bothof which violate credit recovery guidelines.

In his letter to the Selmasuperintendent, Bice wrote that abuses of the creditrecovery program led to poor class participation and study habits becausestudents 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 tochange grades to promote failing students.

Like Bice, Ibelieve that the majority of local school administrators take credit recoveryand graduation standards seriously and administer them professionally. But Ialso know that when both of the two systems that have been investigatedrecently have been found to have abused the rules, it should raise questionsabout whether more safeguards should be in place.

Thereaction  of state education officials tothese academic scandals in two different school systems has, so far, beensuitably strong and should be a deterrent to future abuses.

The publicshould hope that Bice is right and that these two situations are isolated tojust two of the state's 135 local school systems.

But schooladministrators in many of those 135 systems face pressures to improve studentpromotion and graduation rates. Instead of just reacting to allegations ofabuses "individually" as they arise, Bice might be wise to consider areview of state oversight of such programs to help ensure that such abusesdon't occur in the first place.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer andeditorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.Email him at

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