New city task force will examine credit recovery programs in high schools

The Department of Education is cracking down on graduation rate inflation, following weeks of news reports and investigations alleging academic fraud at New York City high schools.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Tuesday that a new task force will examine how high schools are awarding credits, taking a close look at credit recovery courses, which allow students to earn credits for classes they previously failed. The six-member task force will put together two reports each year that detail how closely schools are following graduation requirements, and staff members at the city’s new borough support centers will be tasked with examining school data for potential improprieties.

“By creating a Regulatory Task Force on Academic Policy and forming dedicated teams to monitor any concerning trends, we are once again sending a clear message that violating academic policies will not be tolerated,” Fariña said in a statement.

The move to begin regularly analyzing such data is a shift for the department, which has previously dealt with accusations of academic impropriety as they arose.

[Read more about the city’s long history of credit recovery here.]

The announcement comes after the New York Post published a front-page story detailing how an 18-year-old earned her high school diploma after a teacher changed a failing grade — something the teacher also publicly admitted to doing. Last month, the city removed the principal at John Dewey High School after an investigation confirmed that students there earned credits toward graduation with no instruction from teachers.

The task force also represents a change in how the de Blasio administration has responded to allegations that have surfaced in the media. Fariña downplayed the Dewey allegations in the weeks before the official report was released, and officials said that additional training for principals and superintendents would address the issues.

The new task force will be overseen by Phil Weinberg, the deputy chancellor of teaching and learning, and include four other department officials. The sixth member has not been named yet, but a spokesman said that it would be someone with no connections to the department. An independent auditor that the department already contracts with, Ernst & Young, will review and verify the task force’s work.

The group will also pass concerns along to the Special Commissioner of Investigation — one of two offices already set up to deal with allegations of wrongdoing within the school system. (SCI, headed by former police Commissioner Richard Condon, operates independently of the education department. The Office of Special Investigations operates within it.)

A focus of their work will be examining schools’ use of “credit recovery” programs, which allow students to make up failed classes in a condensed way, sometimes through online assignments or packets of worksheets. Such courses are sanctioned if they are overseen by a teacher, and they help some struggling students make it over their final hurdles to earn a diploma. They have also been criticized for requiring little effort from students and being used to artificially boost graduation rates.

In 2012, the city introduced new rules designed to curb graduation rate inflation, restricting how many courses students could make up through credit recovery and when they could do so. That year, city data showed that 1.7 percent of all high school credits were awarded using credit recovery, though a few schools had much higher rates.

But allegations of impropriety have persisted, surfacing most recently in stories about William Cullen Bryant and Flushing high schools in Queens. City officials said in July that superintendents and principals would receive new training on academic guidelines.

The department spokesman, Harry Hartfield, said that the task force would also look for suspicious trends in state test scores of elementary and middle schools, such as whether there is an anomalous improvement in proficiency rates from one year to the next. The department has sent monitors to schools with suspicious test scores or where cheating allegations have been lodged, but has never before used data proactively to prompt investigations.