College & Workforce Readiness

Utah Inflated Its High School Graduation Rate, Federal Watchdog Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2018 3 min read
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Utah artificially inflated its 2014-15 high school graduation rate by 1.3 points, and doesn’t have a good enough system to guarantee the public that it is correctly calculating and reporting that key indicator of high school success, according to a new report by a federal watchdog agency.

The audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General found that Utah’s “system of internal control did not provide reasonable assurance that reported graduation rates were accurate and complete.” Its oversight didn’t catch mistakes in the calculations submitted by its local districts, the audit, released Nov. 27, said.

As a result, the statewide graduation rate it reported in 2014-15—84.8 percent—was 1.3 points higher than it should have been, the report said.

In comments attached to the final report, Utah officials acknowledged the problems with its calculations and oversight procedures and said it is working to correct them.

Big Graduation-Rate Gains Spark Investigation

Utah caught the inspector general’s eye because it reported one of the highest rates of graduation-rate improvement in the nation in recent years. The state, which has been working hard to raise its graduation rate, reported the same overall graduation rate as the national average in 2011-12: 80 percent. But by 2015-16, it had pulled ahead of the national average by a full percentage point, to 85.2 percent.

California and Alabama also caught the inspector general’s eye. In two audits released earlier, the agency found deficiencies in the way those two states calculate their graduation rates as well. The completion of the report on Utah marks the end—for now at least—of the federal agency’s inquiry into states’ graduation rates.

Scrutiny of how states calculate their graduation rates has intensified as the national average high school graduation rate keeps rising. As the numbers reach all-time highs, evidence is accumulating to suggest that miscalculations—or outright fudging—are painting a false picture of schools’ accomplishments.

Efforts to clean up and standardize schools’ graduation rates date back more than a decade, when the federal government began requiring them all to calculate their rates the same way: by reporting the percentage of freshmen who finish high school four years later with a “regular diploma.”

How Miscalculations Happen

In some places around the country, districts have been including other kinds of diplomas in their calculations—diplomas with less-rigorous requirements. Districts have also been caught counting students who didn’t complete all required credits, or failing to count students who might have dragged down their graduation rates if they had been counted, such as those who left high school to earn adult-education diplomas (which don’t count as “regular” diplomas under federal rules).

In Utah’s case, the inspector general found several types of miscalculations or rule-flouting that inflated its graduation rate.

In random tests it conducted in two Utah districts, it found that in 40 percent to 57 percent of the cases of students leaving school, districts hadn’t properly documented that they transferred to other schools that confer “regular” high school diplomas.

That raises questions about whether those students earned high school diplomas elsewhere. In order to get those students off their books, districts are required to have written confirmation that they enrolled in other regular high schools.

The agency also found that 5 percent of the students in one district, and nearly 26 percent in the other, shouldn’t have been counted as graduates because they hadn’t earned sufficient credits, or had earned adult-education diplomas.

Overall, the state improperly included as graduates 322 students who earned adult-education diplomas, and failed to include 342 students who should have been included in the cohort of freshmen for the graduating class of 2014-15, the audit concluded.

Photo: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.