Graduation Fraud: When Money Isn't the Only Motive



Bobbie Dani
ACFE Research Specialist

When the term “fraud” is used in conjunction with schools, the first thing that usually comes to mind is, “How much was stolen?” or “Where did our tax dollars really go?” After all, isn’t money the raison d’etre for committing fraud?

There is another type of fraud in U.S. high schools; however, that has recently made headlines. Some schools are allowing students to graduate without all the requirements being met to do so. 

There are only a few things required of students to graduate from high school: attending classes and getting passing grades. For some students, these can be difficult tasks to complete. So, school administrators and teachers alike do their best to help where they can.

However, some schools have taken that “help” too far. When every senior at Washington D.C.’s Ballou High School not only donned the cap and gown last May, but also had been accepted to college, red flags went up. The state education board began an investigation into Ballou’s high school and its school district’s graduation practices.

Thousands of records had been changed so that graduation rates were higher than what they should’ve been. At Ballou alone, half the graduates missed three months of the school year with no consequences. At another D.C. school, more than 4,000 attendance record changes allowed 118 students to graduate undeservedly.

Unfortunately, other school districts around the country are facing the same problems. At Tennessee’s Trezevant High School, more than 1,000 records were changed over a five-year period, allowing students to graduate without the appropriate grade requirements. Maryland’s Prince George’s County schools had more than 5,500 grades changed (after graduation) to support the increase in graduation percentages from previous years. More than one-third of those students had excessive absences.

Some school districts use grade floors as a method to “assist” their students to pass classes. In this practice, teachers are not allowed to give students anything less than a pre-set grade. While this practice is intended to give students a fighting chance to improve their grades (the theory: it is easier to come back from a 60 than a 20), instead, it has been used to change failing grades to passing grades.

Why do schools do this? Mostly for funding reasons. Almost half the states base funding decisions on daily attendance while the other half base funding on a formula that heavily weighs attendance. Some schools were looking to improve their school ranking by showing improved graduation rates, resulting in more resources and job security for the administration. Most teachers were pressured by the school administration and didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs by fighting back even though they knew it was wrong.

As of this writing, the individual cases are still under investigation and consequences for the administration have yet to be decided. While state education boards are scrambling to determine the extent of these issues, the real damage has already been done. Unprepared students have been let out into the world thinking that making little effort will still get them where they want to go. Unfortunately, the long-term damages of this type of fraud are immeasurable.