The Mobile County Public School System was one of the school districts the federal government reviewed prior to last week’s revelation that calculation errors caused Alabama to misreport statewide graduation rates for the 2013-14 school year.
The State Department of Education (ALSDE) acknowledged those findings in a release issued last week amid an ongoing review of graduation rates in Alabama, California and at least one other state being conducted by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE).
Over the past four years, Alabama has touted large improvements in its statewide graduation rate, even as students moved into a new, more rigorous curriculum as part of the state’s College and Career Ready Standards.
In 2015, ALSDE announced an 89.3 percent graduation rate — continuing a steady upward climb from the 72 percent rate reported in 2012 and putting Alabama among the top three states in the country.
However, with the recent announcement, ALSDE confirmed errors in the way those figures were calculated caused them to be “misstated to the people of Alabama — policymakers, educators, parents, students, all citizens” and the federal education officials conducting the current audit of those rates.
“We are accountable to all people of this state and deeply regret the misstating of our graduation rate,” State Superintendent of Education Michael Sentance said last week. “We are now undergoing a meticulous review to ensure that all monitoring and data collection is performed with fidelity.”
ALSDE spokesperson Malissa Valdes-Hubert said the USDE review targeted the graduating class of 2013-14, though she couldn’t say whether other years were affected. She also said state officials don’t have an accurate number for the current graduation rate or “any plans to do any recalculations at this time.”
One problem identified by the USDE was the state’s lack of oversight regarding the graduation numbers reported by local school districts as well as the class credits those districts used to award diplomas.
“In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned. The ALSDE did not monitor local systems with the necessary scrutiny,” the release reads. “This was an internal, administrative oversight and the ALSDE is now in the process of addressing all related areas.”
Valdes-Hubert said because the USDE was still conducting its review, the state does not yet know which local school systems might have “misstated” their own graduation rates or how many there could be altogether.
Sentance issued a statement Monday clarifying previous reports that MCPSS has been targeted for review by the USDE early on in its review process. While he did confirm that federal officials had “visited and reviewed records” from MCPSS, he said the district “was not chosen for any particular cause.”
“According to the USDE, it conducted the audit ‘to determine whether the ALSDE has implemented a system of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that reported graduation rates are accurate and complete,’” Sentance added.
So far, MCPSS — Alabama’s largest public school system — and Birmingham City Schools are the only districts state education officials have acknowledged were reviewed by the USDE individually — which, if for no other reason, could be because of their large enrollments.
Last week, MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips said local school officials had “explicitly followed the guidelines set forth by the [ALSDE]” and had “submitted all documentation as required.” Philips went on to say ALSDE also “reviewed and verified the graduation records” that Mobile County schools presented.
However, another key error in the state’s calculation of graduation rates involved students who received an Alabama Occupational Diploma — a specialized degree that allows students to get job training in school using a unique set of work requirements, curriculum and standards.
The USDE review concluded that, currently, the Alabama Occupational Diploma is not anchored to the state standards required for graduation, adding that students that received it in the year’s reviewed shouldn’t have been counted when determining a four-year cohort graduation rate.
While the Alabama Occupational Diploma program dates back to the early 2000s, the high school graduation requirements used today weren’t approved by the Alabama State Board of Education until January 2013.
Those new requirements were updated to reflect the adoption of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards but they also created “multiple pathways” for students to earn a diploma — including the Alabama Occupational Diploma.
At the time, then-State Superintendent Tommy Bice clarified that students on an occupational diploma track, as well as special education graduates, could be counted as regular graduates beginning with the class of 2013. Last week, as reports of the misreported graduation numbers began circulating, Bice told al.com that he still “stood by that decision.”
At this point, though, it’s still unclear how yearly graduation rates might be affected when those types of alternative diplomas are no longer calculated. Like other districts, MCPSS has counted recipients of the Alabama Occupational Diploma among their “regular graduates.”
However, the school system has yet to respond to inquiries about how many of those diplomas it has awarded since 2013. Both the ALSDE and local school officials have said more information would be available when the review by the USDE is complete and released to the public.
In the meantime, Sentance said ALDE is already reviewing its internal protocols and will be increasing the training of its staff as well as “organizationally restructuring.”
“We will be establishing an internal audit unit to ensure protocols and procedures are followed,” he continued. “We will also continue to work within the USDE.”