8:25 p.m. | Updated New York City’s Education Department has called for investigations into nine high schools for irregularities in the way the schools scored examinations or awarded credits, and has identified hundreds of students in the city who were allowed to graduate without meeting basic requirements.
Officials found problems at 55 of the 60 high schools reviewed in a special audit, including the improper grading of Regents exams, the graduation of students who did not meet credit and testing requirements, the awarding of credits for work not performed, and gaps in reporting about students who supposedly switched to other schools.
Of the 9,582 students who graduated from the 60 high schools in 2010, 292 fell short on their requirements. Still, the city said the graduates would retain their diplomas.
The flaws were so glaring at nine schools that the Education Department referred the cases to the city’s office of the special commissioner of investigation for schools.
Education officials also said the audit had prompted them to speed up a plan to have Regents exams graded by someone other than the students’ teacher, as has long been the practice. And after learning that many principals were not familiar with graduation requirements, the department has created a guide explaining them and intends to hold training sessions for the principals in all of the city’s 460 public high schools.
The findings are a result of a yearlong audit by the Education Department’s auditor general, which Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott called “the toughest audit that’s ever been done” in the school system. Mr. Walcott, who announced the results on Thursday, said the audit was ordered in part because of news reports about the large number of students who achieved the exact minimum score needed to pass the Regents exams.
Of the 55 schools with problems, some were found to have few errors, but they failed to meet documentation requirements. Nevertheless, the results support claims by teachers and others that some students with holes in their transcripts are receiving diplomas.
The city’s four-year graduation rate has been rising under the Bloomberg administration, reaching 61 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which there is data. But also rising is the percentage of students who require remediation in three subjects when they get to a City University of New York college: 22.6 percent in 2010, up from 15.4 percent in 2005.
Critics of data-driven accountability for schools had predicted that the emphasis on test scores and graduation rates would lead teachers and administrators to bend rules to help students graduate.
Last year, cheating scandals erupted in Atlanta and Philadelphia. In New York City, complaints of cheating have risen in the last several years, and the State Education Department has appointed a special investigator to review how it receives and investigates complaints of test tampering. The investigator’s report is expected next month.
Mr. Walcott said the city would now hire an outside company to conduct audits of high schools every year. The city is also creating software to block principals and other administrators from authorizing graduations of students who do not have the mandatory number of course credits and the minimum test scores required.
The audit found unusual Regents scores in 14 schools, including cases of teachers giving points to students for blank answers.
Questionable Regents scores were found at five of the schools that are being referred to the special commissioner of investigations: Fort Hamilton High School, Hillcrest High School, John Adams High School, the Brooklyn School for Music and Theatre, and the Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology.
At Bronx Aerospace and the School for International Studies in Brooklyn, allegations of irregularities were reported during the audit, and at two more schools, the Providing Urban Learners Success in Education High School, called PULSE, in the Bronx, and Foundations Academy in Brooklyn, the principals did not have credible explanations for graduating students who had not met the requirements.
For some schools, the audit pointed to a lack of knowledge among principals about graduation requirements.
“At a high level, it’s fairly straightforward; you need 44 credits to graduate,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. “But there’s a lot of overlapping rules. You have practices that were conflicting out there, and there was never a way for central D.O.E. to standardize control over that.”
The audit flagged 33 of the schools for graduating students in 2009 and 2010 who had not taken mandatory classes or passed enough Regents exams.
At Landmark High School in Chelsea, more than a third of the 93 students who graduated in 2010 were missing required academic courses as well as gym and health credits.
Earlier this school year, teachers at Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers in the Bronx, which is now slated to close, accused administrators of crediting students for a chemistry class that was not offered. In response, the city opened an investigation and scrambled to overhaul students’ schedules.
City officials are also tightening the requirements for credit recovery, the practice of giving students credits for courses they previously failed but have made-up through additional work. The audit found that 59 students at nine of the schools were awarded credits in this manner, although there was insufficient evidence that a panel of teachers and administrators approved the work or that the subject teacher supervised the work.
Students will now only be eligible to make up failed classes through credit recovery if they attended two-thirds of the class, and they can earn a maximum of three credits.
An earlier version of this post had an incorrect reference to the deficiencies involving 59 students at nine schools who were awarded credits through credit recovery.