'Juking the Stats' in Denver Public Schools

"Juking the stats. Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats and majors become colonels. I've been here before." -- a cop-turned-teacher in HBO's series "The Wire," when asked to boost test scores.

Last week's article in Westword about abuses in Denver North High School's "credit recovery" program touched a nerve, and for good reason. It's a textbook example of kids being used to make adults look better.

There's no reason to believe the problems detailed in Melanie Asmar's story are limited to North. In fact I've received emails from people at other Denver high schools alleging similarly questionable practices. And the New York Times wrote a national story about credit recovery abuses in April.

I'm sure most of the adults involved -- heck, probably all of them -- allowed and in some cases encouraged kids to cheat on credit recovery homework and exams thinking it was in the best interest of those kids. So many studies, after all, have shown that young people's prospects improve significantly with a high school diploma.

If the diploma has been watered down to the extent that the credential becomes meaningless, though, then every graduate of North High School is hurt by this extreme manifestation of the "pobrecito syndrome" (as in "oh, these poor babies' lives are so hard we can't expect too much of them.")

There's also an element here of gaming the system for less altruistic reasons. Juking the stats doesn't just happen in "The Wire." It's exactly what happened in North High's credit recovery program.

For those of you who haven't read it, here are the main points from Asmar's story.

  • North began using credit recovery in 2008, when its graduation rate was 46 percent. The program allows students who have failed core courses to retake them online with adult supervision.
  • By 2010, North's graduation rate had jumped to 64 percent.
  • Asmar uncovered information from sources and records showing that kids and adults gamed the system, thereby increasing pass rates. Kids used search engines to find answers or took tests repeatedly until they got the right answers and then passed those answers on to friends. Adult supervisors said North administrators "encouraged and even helped" kids find ways to pass online tests.
  • North students in credit recovery could get a semester's credit simply by taking the credit recovery final exam for a given course, which caused Asmar's sources to wonder "whether they really learned anything at all." Yet a senior DPS administrator, Antwan Wilson, was quoted by Asmar defending this practice.

There are many more depressing details in the story, but you get the drift.

It sure sounds like juking the stats to me. And, as in "The Wire," while it benefits some people, it hurts others. In this case, it's allowing students to graduate from high school without demonstrating in any meaningful way that they have learned enough to succeed in higher education or the job market.

The good news here is that plenty of caring teachers at North were outraged by the shenanigans and blew the whistle by calling Asmar. The bad news is that they resorted to this because they couldn't get any satisfaction inside their own building. Westword found emails showing that one mid-level administrator at 900 Grant Street knew students were using the Web to cheat, and urged the school to block those sites during tests. But apparently no one from the district followed up, and North kept the sites unblocked.

Once Asmar brought the issue to the district's attention, Wilson, DPS' assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness, told her that the district would audit the transcripts of every North graduate over the past two years. But what will the district do with its findings? And what, exactly, can an audit prove?

It is incumbent upon the district to launch a major investigation into credit recovery practices in all its high schools. In the unlikely event that North proves to be an isolated case, the people found responsible should face harsh sanctions (Assistant Principal Nancy Werkmeister, identified in Westword as the administrator in charge of the program, recently retired, and the principal, Ed Salem, is leaving the district).

If, as seems more likely, the investigation uncovers similar problems in other schools, then the district needs to do a couple of things. First, it needs to tighten its implementation of the credit recovery program and write clear regulations about how credit recovery computer labs are monitored.

More important, though, the district leadership needs to do some soul-searching about whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.

Miraculously boosting graduation rates by giving would-be dropouts a meaningless diploma does no one any favors. And it sure doesn't make anyone look good -- quite the contrary.

Scandals of this sort call into question all the data the district releases trumpeting its improvement, and give fodder to the district's relentless critics. Does DPS release the numbers without vetting them? Does it cast a beady eye and investigate suspicious jumps in test scores and graduation rates at specific schools?

I hope so. If district officials believe in statistical near-miracles, then (to borrow a parable I once heard) they are like the man who gains 50 pounds, can't fit into his clothes, buys a much larger pair of pants, finds that they fit well and proclaims, "See, I'm in shape!"