College & Workforce Readiness

Utah Inflated Its High School Graduation Rate, Federal Watchdog Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Get High School & Beyond posts delivered to your inbox as soon as they’re published. Sign up here. Also, for news and analysis of issues that shape adolescents’ preparation for work and higher education.

Photo: Getty

Related Tags:

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

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion What Will It Take to Get High School Students Back on Track?
Three proven strategies can support high school graduation and postsecondary success—during and after the pandemic.
Robert Balfanz
5 min read
Conceptual illustration of students making choices based on guidance.
Viktoria Kurpas/iStock
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion An Economist Explains How to Make College Pay
Rick Hess speaks with Beth Akers about practical advice regarding how to choose a college, what to study, and how to pay for it.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says College Enrollment Dip Hits Students of Color the Hardest
The pandemic led to a precipitous decline in enrollment for two-year schools, while four-year colleges and universities held steady.
3 min read
Conceptual image of blocks moving forward, and one moving backward.
College & Workforce Readiness Letter to the Editor How We Can Improve College-Completion Rates
Early- and middle-college high schools have the potential to improve college completion rates, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read