Alabama education officials just can’t seem to get its graduation rates right.
Months after being called out by federal education officials for artificially inflating graduation rates, state officials had to pull down 2016 graduation rates released last Friday because those, too, were inaccurate.
In an official statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Alabama state superintendent Michael Sentance said, “There were a number of mistakes made, both in data manipulation and basic protocol, which caused superintendents and others to take issue with the graduation rates posted by the [State Department of Education].”
Sentance took an apologetic tone, saying, “We owe it to not only the educators, but the community at large, to make sure our data is solid and reliable. At a minimum we should have given local systems the basic consideration of vetting the data we are making public on their behalf. This is unacceptable and cannot continue to happen.”
State board member Mary Scott Hunter, R-Huntsville, said in a statement to AL.com, “I’m pleased to see Mr. Sentance taking responsibility and actions to correct the errors of his staff. Local school systems do deserve an opportunity to review [the data]. Parents deserve accurate information. Educators ought to feel pride in all the additional students they’ve helped to achieve a diploma.”
Sentance added an investigation has begun into how the mistakes were made and is working on adding protocols to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
The statement continued, “For now, the online portal that hosts this year’s graduation rate data has been taken down and will remain down until the data has been corrected.”
The statement did not indicate a timeline for when corrected rates would be posted.
A spreadsheet containing the 2016 rates was published on the state department of education’s web site late Friday afternoon. AL.com published a story that included those initial rates, showing the statewide graduation rate dropped 4.5 percentage points from 89.3 percent in 2015 to 84.8 percent in 2016.
School Superintendents of Alabama executive director Dr. Eric Mackey said he heard from superintendents across the state surprised about Friday’s publication of the 2016 graduation rates.
Mackey said communication with local superintendents from the department hasn’t been good in recent months. Mackey said local superintendents had hoped department officials would issue an official statement when the 2016 rates were released to help the public understand why rates had declined.
Last year, federal education officials, in an audit of the state department’s ability to properly oversee the calculation of federal graduation rates, determined Alabama counted students as graduates that didn’t meet the federal definition of a graduate.
To count as a high school graduate, both of these criteria must be met: (1) the student must have earned all required credits within four years of entering the ninth grade, and (2) the coursework must be fully aligned with the state’s academic standards.
The U.S. Department of Education standardized the way high school graduates are counted in order to allow for uniformity in reporting and to allow standards for comparison. That definition first went into effect with the class of 2011.
In 2013, the state department of education issued instructions telling school districts officials to count students taking coursework from the Essentials/Life Skills pathway, previously known as the Alabama Occupational Diploma (AOD) pathway, as regular graduates.
Those courses were initially designed for students with disabilities who were not planning to attend college. The courses are based on Alabama’s standards but teachers are not required to include all of the standards that students in general education courses are taught.
Local school officials followed the state department’s instructions and included students taking those courses as regular graduates for 2014 and 2015, where previously students were counted as “completers.”
It wasn’t until December of 2016 that local school officials were told they could no longer count those students as regular graduates and would have to return to counting them as completers.
Sentance explained how state officials miscalculated the rates, saying due to the way some courses were coded, they were viewed as Essentials/Life Skills courses inaccurately. “This resulted in numerous courses being discarded that were indeed valid and acceptable. In some instances, students with well above the necessary course requirements were counted as non-graduates,” Sentance said, adding, “In turn, graduation rates dropped in various systems across the state.”
“We feel like the department could have handled this situation much better all the way across the board,” Mackey said. “From the beginning there has been a lot of confusion about who was responsible for what and why the numbers had changed.”
In a statement to AL.com late Tuesday, Mackey said, “We appreciate the department owning this mistake, and we trust that they will put controls in place to avoid any more costly mistakes like these in the future.” However, Mackey said, this is not the first time state officials have released “botched” data, and “it undermines the credibility of all of the data public educators share with our communities and parents.”
The state board of education will hold a work session at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. About the work session, Hunter said, “I expect my [state board of education] colleagues and I will have a number of questions at tomorrow’s work session.”
The agenda includes some heavy items, including the Montgomery schools intervention (the plan and the funding), updates on the work of the math, science and reading committees, where Sentance’s strategic plan for education stands, and the release of graduation rate data.
The board made the decision to hold two work sessions each month during a marathon work session in March, during which they vented a myriad of concerns with Sentance, most of which centered on lack of communication with board members.
Updated 7:50 p.m. with reaction to the official statement from Hunter and Mackey.