Ballou High School


How One School Came to Be at the Center of the Grad Rate Debate

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

Okay. So what exactly happened at Ballou?

If you work in any field even remotely related to education, odds are you’ve come across a headline about D.C.’s Ballou High School at some point in the past few months. (And there have been a lot of them.)

In all the coverage and discussion, it’s worth pausing to understand what actually happened and what media outlets and reports are saying. So here’s a quick rundown and reminder of everything you need to know about the controversy surrounding Ballou High School so far.

A Look Back

Ballou High School first made headlines last summer, when it celebrated the news that every single graduating senior was accepted into college—the senior class numbered 190 students in total, and the majority of those students got their diplomas. (The numbers on this vary; The Washington Post and NPR both reported that 164 seniors got their diplomas, while a report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the local education agency, reported 177 students graduated.)

Considering that Ballou is located in one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods and that graduation rates had been significantly lower in the past, a lot of people reported it as a remarkable success story, including us.

Ballou High School Panel
An event in June celebrated and discussed Ballou’s success. Story here.

But months later, an investigation from WAMU and NPR found that a lot of the seniors who graduated from Ballou shouldn’t have, at least according to the standards set by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS).

Why Shouldn’t these Students Have Graduated?

The short answer: chronic absence. WAMU and NPR found that half of Ballou graduates missed more than three months of school last year, and those absences were unexcused.

“One in five students was absent more than present—missing more than 90 days of school,” WAMU reported, adding that DCPS policy says students should automatically fail a course they miss at least 30 times. All told, the investigation found that most of Ballou’s graduating class missed more than six weeks of school.

Should Attendance Matter that Much?

Yes, according to the experts. The nonprofit Attendance Works has been the leading champion of attendance for years, because they know that missing just 10 percent of school (about two days per month) can have a huge impact on students’ learning.

D.C. Council hosts public roundtable on Ballou controversy.


That being said, there has been some debate on DCPS’ 80/20 rule—if a student misses 20 percent of the school day, they’re considered absent for the full day. That’s caused some people to rationalize that maybe students didn’t miss as much school as the numbers report.

But an independent investigation from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education audit found that’s not the case. “In order for students to fail in the level the report found in terms of the numbers, it’s not just they were late to school, okay? They missed school. And they didn’t just miss a period, they missed multiple periods,” DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson told WAMU.

Why Were So Many Students Absent?

As WAMU reported, Ballou students testified in a hearing that there are circumstances happening outside of school keeping them from showing up. Sometimes they have to take younger siblings to school, sometimes they’re dealing with transportation issues.

However, some do say that the aforementioned 80/20 rule creates a disincentive for them to show up at all—if they’re going to be marked absence when they’re late, why show up at all?

Figure of Consolidated Findings
A figure from the OSSE report, which analyzed attendance and graduation outcomes of public schools throughout D.C. The figure above captures their analysis of Ballou.

Robin White Goode from Black Enterprise argues too much attention has been given to student attendance and not enough on holding adults accountable. “Perhaps we should focus less on student absences at Ballou and ask why the rest of D.C.’s adults haven’t shown up,” she wrote in December.

The Biggest Takeaway?

This is a complicated issue, one that lives beyond what happens inside the school building and is certainly not relegated to a single institution. After the WAMU/NPR report first came out, teachers across the country, from Florida to Illinois, contacted NPR with their own stories of feeling pressure to pass students who aren’t ready.

And as far as D.C. is concerned, Ballou is merely an example of a citywide issue, with other high schools also reporting significant rates of chronic absence.

As The Washington Post reported, the OSSE audit found that, “More than 11 percent of graduates receiving a diploma from a D.C. public high school last year missed most of the academic year.”

Furthermore, the report noticed a troubling theme: low-income students are the ones most likely to be affected.

As a Post reader said in a letter to the editor: “Students’ failing grades and unacceptable absences are not a localized problem, uniquely the responsibility of Ballou teachers. The problem is systemic, found at all but the most selective high schools.”

There are lots of other questions people have raised too. Would holding these students back really have helped? What does this say about the graduation rate goal? What are young people saying about the matter?  Why are administrators and teachers feeling so much pressure, and what should be done about it? What does Ballou teach us about the state of public schools across the country? Those are just some of the questions we plan on exploring in the weeks to come.

Since this story was published, The Washington Post reported that the FBI is now investigating public schools across D.C., focusing specifically on Ballou. Learn more here.

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