Ala., Calif. Graduation Rate Reporting Under Audit By U.S. Ed Department

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — November 22, 2016 5 min read
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A version of this story appears in the High School & Beyond blog.

The U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of auditing whether California and Alabama are accurately reporting how many of the states’ students graduate high school in four years.

The audit’s goal, according to the Office of Inspector General’s Annual Plan for 2017, is to “determine whether selected [state education agencies] have implemented systems of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to ensure that reported graduation rates are accurate and reliable.”

A spokeswoman for the Office Inspector General confirmed that the education department is auditing several state education agencies’ calculation and reporting of graduation rates. The spokeswoman said that the office couldn’t comment further on the focus of the audits, why California and Alabama had been singled out, or the findings so far in order to preserve the integrity of the audit.

But in Alabama, at least, local media has linked the audit to dramatic increases in the state’s graduation rate in recent years. The state’s graduation rate has increased by 17 percentage points since 2011.

The OIG has audited states’ graduation-rate reporting before. A 2006 audit of Washington State’s education department found, among other things, that various school-level errors meant that the state was likely overreporting its graduation report by nearly 6 percentage points and that the state was using the wrong definition of “dropout.” An audit of South Dakota that same year found that the state’s approach to reporting graduation rates didn’t meet federal requirements under No Child Left Behind.

Questions About Collection

State education departments have been required to report what’s known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, or ACGR, since 2011. The ACGR captures what portion of high schoolers who start 9th grade in a given year graduate four years later.

The goal was to have a set of data about high school graduation rates that allowed for comparisons across states. Before 2011, states used a variety of formulas to report graduation rates: Some might calculate a rate based on how many students who began the year as seniors graduated later that year, while others might include those who graduated in five or six years in their tallies, and some might not include alternative diplomas granted to students with special needs. (You can find more on the change in graduation rates in this Education Week article from 2011.)

But in the summer of 2015, NPR, among others, raised concerns about how states and schools were going about increasing graduation rates. Reporters found that 21 states offer easy paths to diplomas. Some schools offer credit-recovery programs in which students can make up years of coursework in weeks or days; others mislabel students’ status.

In November 2015, the Data Quality Campaign released a report highlighting differences in states’ practices for reporting graduation rates that might prevent rates from being comparable, despite the introduction of the ACGR. The report’s writers suggest that policymakers implement regular audits, ensure that all students are included in 9th grade cohorts, and train teachers and schools in data collection, among other actions.

An interesting fact from that report: Iowa, the state with the highest reported graduation rate, is also the only state that does not audit graduation-rate-reporting practices.

States respond

The class of 2015 in Alabama had the third highest graduation rate in the country, with some 89 percent of high schoolers graduating on time. That’s 17.3 percentage points higher than the number reported in 2011. At the same time, however, the state’s high school students lag behind most of the country on other measures, such as the ACT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Andrew Yerbey, a senior policy counsel at the Alabama Policy Institute, published two essays raising concerns about Alabama’s sudden increase in graduation rates earlier this year. In March, Yerbey wrote that then-outgoing state Superintendent Tommy Bice’s pride in the state’s increasing graduation rate was misplaced.

Despite the “skyrocketing” graduation rates, Yerbey writes, “Alabama has seen nothing remotely similar occur with regard to scholastic achievement, which remains dismal—among the worst of the worst in the United States.”

Alabama ranked 48th in the country on the NAEP. And, Yerbey writes, 40 high schools in the state graduated classes of seniors in which none were college-ready as defined by their ACT scores.

The state’s education department replied to Trisha Powell Crain, an reporter who wrote about Yerbey’s concerns and the state’s graduation rate:

Our goal is to make sure every student graduates and that every graduate is prepared for life after high school. That is, having the ability to enter a two- or four-year institution without the need for remedial courses and/or possessing an industry-recognized certification or credential to enter into the workforce. Although the hard work of our teachers and students is reflected in our increasing graduation rate, there is still much to do as we continue toward realizing the other half of that goal."

The Alabama Department of Education had not replied to Education Week’s request for a comment about the OIG audit by the end of the day on Monday. reported last week that state Superintendent Michael Sentance had said that it was premature to comment on the review since it is currently incomplete. reports that the state has had some conditions placed on federal funding if regulations haven’t been followed, though it’s unclear what consequences this audit might have.

In California, where the graduation rate has grown by 7.6 percentage points since 2010, Peter Tira, a spokesman for the state education department, wrote in an email that the state attributes its sixth consecutive year of increased graduation rates to “new, more rigorous academic state standards; additional revenue flowing into our schools as a result of Proposition 30, and an improved economy; the return of relevant and engaging classes in art, music, and career technical education that were cut during the recession to cite a few reasons.”

Image from Diplomas Count 2016

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Follow @jzubrzycki for more on curriculum and instruction in K-12 schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.