The School District of Philadelphia does not track — in any document or any repository — the number or percentage of students that have failed at least one course in a grading period at the secondary level.
That fact has come to light after two Right to Know (RTK) Law requests filed this year requesting such documentation were denied on the grounds that the documents did not exist. The district vehemently denies this conclusion, even though it cannot produce any documentation.
“To assert that the District does not track information just because said information, which is not public, was not shared with your outlet is irresponsible and feeds negative stereotypes that are often attributed to urban school districts with large numbers of students of color,” the district said in a statement to Broad + Liberty.
The district’s statement is provided in full at the end of this article.
The first RTK request was filed in January by a group of parents, and was denied because “[t]he School District does not maintain a report with the percentage of secondary students who failed on (sic) or more classes.”
Supposing that the documents could have existed in other formats than a percentage calculation, Broad + Liberty filed a second RTK request using broader language that would capture any document that tracks the number of failing students.
This second request was also denied because no documents exist.
Nevertheless, the district said it was inaccurate to conclude it did not track failing students.
What’s striking about this is that Gov. Wolf is currently marching around the state attempting to malign charter schools by saying that they lack accountability
“The progress of students in the School District of Philadelphia who may have failed one or more classes in a term/marking period is closely monitored by teachers and school-based staff,” the district said.
“Students found to be in jeopardy of not successfully passing a class during an academic year receive ample support to help them achieve a passing grade. There is regular communication with students and parents/guardians regarding the academic performance of a student and information is provided to help them obtain the necessary supports for improvement, when necessary.”
The group of parents that filed the initial RTK request with the School District of Philadelphia had filed similar requests with success in other districts. For example, documents provided by the Great Valley School District in Malvern show the number of students who failed one course in a marking period tripled in the last year.
The data could be useful to the public for several reasons, not the least of which would be trying to measure the impact of a year of telelearning on students.
For example, the Morning Call in the Lehigh Valley found a spike in students failing at least one class in 2020 compared to 2019 after requesting the data from 17 school districts in its area.
“About half the Lehigh Valley’s middle and high schools saw the percentage of students failing two or more classes at least double in the fall,” the paper reported.
Morning Call also reported that the Bangor Area School District, “did not provide data, saying the records in the form requested did not exist.”
The School District of Philadelphia is far and away the largest school district in the commonwealth, with about 126,000 students. That’s roughly six times larger than the second largest district, in Pittsburgh, which has only 20,000 pupils, according to state data.
The district’s assertion that the information requested is not releasable is dubious. The Broad + Liberty request specifically asked for documents that measured failing students in aggregate numbers; therefore, it did not ask for individual grades for any specific individual student.
Priscilla Lo has a 5th grader in the district and has been active in district politics. She was part of the activist group “Philadelphians for Open Schools” earlier this year. Lo believes the information can be harvested, and said it would be “entirely irresponsible” for the district to not track this data district-wide.
“SDP uses a software called Infinite Campus to manage grades and attendance; it allows me as a parent to track my son’s grades down to the project and subject in real time,” Lo explained.
About half the Lehigh Valley’s middle and high schools saw the percentage of students failing two or more classes at least double in the fall
“According to the company video, the District should be able to use Infinite Campus to pull district-wide information. If grades are recorded into a centralized system, I would think SDP should be able to pull any reports in any configurations that they need. I don’t want to speculate as to why they won’t provide this data, but I would think the data will be quite damning for the District.”
Lo says she feels that the district lacks accountability because it answers only to the appointed board.
“Understand that the Board works hard to ensure District success, and they truly care about our students, it is nonetheless a monumental job,” she said. “It begs the question as to whether the Board should be reconfigured in a way that holds the District accountable to actual stakeholders who are being impacted by the District’s decisions, namely parents and members of the community.”
The issue of school success comes as Gov. Tom Wolf has been barnstorming the state in regard to education budgeting.
Gov. Wolf held a press conference yesterday on the steps of the state Capitol arguing that education funding must be increased to make up for learning loss during the pandemic, among other reasons. Part of his education funding proposal includes a $400 million cut to charter schools.
“What’s striking about this is that Gov. Wolf is currently marching around the state attempting to malign charter schools by saying that they lack accountability,” said Colleen Hronchich, an education policy analyst for the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation.
“Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of families try but are unable to get their child into a charter school every year because the schools are in such high demand that there aren’t any seats left,” she continued. “Those students are then left going to a school district that, as evidenced by these findings, can’t even account for which students are failing and which aren’t. This is another example of why mom and dad are best at judging where their kids should go to school, and the government should strive to be as supportive as possible.”
Statement from the School District of Philadelphia:
The progress of students in the School District of Philadelphia who may have failed one or more classes in a term/marking period is closely monitored by teachers and school-based staff. Students found to be in jeopardy of not successfully passing a class during an academic year receive ample support to help them achieve a passing grade. There is regular communication with students and parents/guardians regarding the academic performance of a student and information is provided to help them obtain the necessary supports for improvement, when necessary.
Under the Federal Educational Records and Privacy Act (FERPA), the District is prohibited from releasing the educational records of students without parental consent, therefore information regarding students who may have failed a class in a given term is not something that would be shared with your outlet. The District publicly posts information on school performance in areas such as academic achievement, school climate and safety, and college and career readiness at the following link: https://schoolprofiles.philasd.org/.
The district is committed to data transparency and makes available public details on all the important metrics associated with student achievement. We will continue to update and distribute information consistent with the resources listed below. Updates for the 2020-2021 school year will be posted this summer. The following are links that can provide additional information:
Data on rates of students on-track over the past three years is available for the district and individual schools here:
Research reports related to on-track status are produced regularly and found here:
More extensive and detailed information about on-track status is also publicly available here:
The District has closely monitored the progress of students during what has been a year unlike any school year any of us have experienced. We have offered a variety of programs and supports to ensure that all students have access to whatever resources they need to achieve optimal academic performance. In addition to tutoring services that were offered to students during the school year, there will be an opportunity for students to participate in instruction and learning time this summer to improve their grades and successfully complete a class. To assert that the District does not track information just because said information, which is not public, was not shared with your outlet is irresponsible and feeds negative stereotypes that are often attributed to urban school districts with large numbers of students of color.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.