/State Auditor alleges Department of Education manipulated graduation rates

State Auditor alleges Department of Education manipulated graduation rates

Nonprofit Mississippi News An investigation by the state auditor’s found that the Mississippi Department of Education has been manipulating graduation rates for the past decade and “apathetic” about taking action to lower the dropout rate. These allegations are denied by the Mississippi Department of Education. In a press release, Shad White, the State Auditor, stated that Mississippi’s teachers, parents and administrators worked together to increase our graduation rate over recent years. The MDE’s graduation rate calculation has changed, and some of the improvement in graduation rates is due to that. It is important to be truthful about it.” A 17-page performance audit found that the department failed to accurately report graduation rates to Mississippi State Board of Education. The office also failed to create the Office of Dropout Prevention. This was charged with overseeing the state’s dropout prevention plan, increasing graduation rates, and other related tasks. Carey Wright, the state superintendent, denied or clarified many assertions in the 41-page report. “…The MDE strongly denies that inapplicable graduation rates data were used when reporting to State Board of Education or to the general public,” Carey Wright’s response, dated June 18, stated. “The MDE has taken great care to ensure that accurate data (sic), is presented to both the SBE, and the public,” the letter, dated June 18, stated. The report claimed that graduation and dropout rates were calculated to include repeaters. Repeaters are students who have repeated 12th grade up until 2007, when the state board changed the calculation and no longer included repeaters in the rates. The report states that this changed the calculations and caused Mississippi’s graduation rate increase by almost 10 points from 61.1 percent in two months to 70.8 percent. According to the report, the department did not notify the Legislature about the amended changes nor amend the changes made in the statewide prevention program. Wright responded by including documentation from 2007 showing that the department had changed the calculation of graduation rates due to changes in federal law. Prior to 2007, graduation rates included students who earned traditional diplomas as well as students who were special education students earning occupational degrees. These special education students were not included in graduation rate calculations due to federal requirements that “only students graduating high school with a regular diploma” be considered. The department responded saying this change had negligible effects, and dropped the graduation rate for 2004-2005 cohort from 61.1% down to 60.8%. Although the response addressed the auditor’s claim that the department had increased the state graduation rate by ten percent in just two months, it did not address his specific assertion. The graduation rate in Mississippi is calculated using a “four year cohort.” This means that instead of counting the number students who graduated in a particular year, this figure is based on students who began in the ninth grade and continued to the 12th grade. According to the department, this allows for a graduation rate that includes a whole cohort and not just one class. It also gives a better picture of the problem of high school completion and persistence. The 2020 graduation rate, for example, represents students who entered ninth grade in the 2015-16 school years. The annual dropout rate, which is also the percentage and number of students who leave school during a given year, can be separated. Wright stated that “Given Mississippi’s tremendous progress over the past six-years, it is disappointing to read a report that highlights outdated procedures that have not proven effective.” “The State Board of Education Strategic Plan modernized Mississippi’s approach to education. This has led to historic and sustained student achievement throughout Mississippi,” Wright said. In recent years, politicians and department officials have been lauding the state’s high school graduation rates. According to the department, this figure was at an all time high of 85 percent for the 2018-19 school years. The dropout rate was at an all time low of 9.7 per cent. However, there are discrepancies in the figures. Schools with low proficiency rates and F ratings have high graduation rates. Wright admitted that this was a concern when he was asked. Wright stated that this was something Wright is currently looking into at the departmental level. “It’s difficult to believe that you have a high degree of graduation rate when your proficiency rates are low.” Wright also stated that 73 percent of the dropout prevention plans in 139 local schools districts did not comply with department requirements. The report found that nearly half of the graduation plans weren’t being monitored by the department and that 71% were not evidence-based. The agency also said it does not monitor whether evidence-based programs work. Although the department admitted that it does not have a person dedicated to dropping out prevention, the Office of Dropout Prevention is part of the Office of Secondary Education. Wright also included in her response to auditor’s report that the department has a strategy plan for long-term student success and outcomes. The state board of education also established a long-term graduation target of 90% by 2024-25. The auditor’s office provided a list of recommendations to the department. These included: reestablishing the Office of Dropout Prevention, hiring a director, updating the statewide plan for prevention and annually approbating local plans; gathering data to assess areas for improvement in dropping out prevention; and changing statute to increase graduation rates, benchmark years. The latest school year’s graduation rates, 2019-20, won’t be available until the latter part of the year or in early 2021. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to us today as part of the Spring Member Drive.