An audit just released by the federal Office of the Inspector General found Alabama officials disregarded federal educational standards, miscalculating and misreporting graduation rates as recently as the 2013-2014 school year and as early as 2010-2011.

The 35-page audit report, which was released last Friday, says the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) lacked an accurate and effective method to ensure the validity of school systems’ graduation rates and “misreported” these figures to federal education officials.

“We found that ALSDE’s system of internal control did not provide reasonable assurance that reported graduation rates were accurate and complete during our audit period,” the report says. “In addition, ALSDE misreported [graduation rate data].”

The report was particularly critical of Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama’s former state superintendent, who federal officials say refused to accept that certain students who completed life skills-oriented and other non-diploma track programs could not be counted as having graduated.

“The former State Superintendent decided to continue counting students who earned an alternative diploma after being advised by the department that those students could not be included as graduates in the ACGR [adjusted cohort graduation rate],” the audit found.

Bice, also a former special education teacher, has said he believed the students should be counted as having graduated.

“Why wouldn’t we count as graduates a group of students who have completed the coursework outlined in their IEP [Individualized Education Program] within four years?” Bice said in an interview on the topic. “I stand by that decision.”

Alabama was one of several states chosen for the federal audit due to several factors, including an abnormal hike in graduation rates since about 2010.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the national average graduation rate was 79 percent, and Alabama’s was about 72 percent. Just three school years later, in 2013-2014, Alabama’s graduation rate was reported as just over 86 percent, a jump of 14 points, while the national average rose only about 3 points to just over 82 percent.

Singled out in the report are Birmingham and Mobile, two of the state’s largest school systems, which saw similarly dramatic rises in graduation rates.

“Mobile was the largest [school district] in Alabama and reported a graduation rate of 82.3 percent in 2013-14 for its 12 high schools. Mobile’s graduation rate increased 18.3 percentage points from 2010-11 through 2013-14,” the report says.

One concern outlined in the report was that some of the students sampled for the audit had been removed from the cohort without proper documentation.

“Through our testing, we found that students were both erroneously counted as graduates and removed from the ACGR cohort without sufficient documentation or for unallowable reasons,” the report says. “Specifically, Birmingham did not have adequate documentation for five of the six students and Mobile lacked documentation for one of the six students to support their removal from the cohort.”

When it comes to the case from Mobile, county school officials told Lagniappe recordkeeping is a big job, and in the specific case mentioned in the audit report “someone on the school level” failed to make the necessary official documents request required for a particular student’s transfer from a public high school to a private one.

Susan Hinton with the Mobile County Public School System read the specific details of the finding regarding Mobile that was released to the system itself to a Lagniappe reporter:

“We found that Mobile County Public School System did not always ensure that students’ removal from a cohort was supported and allowable,” the finding said, according to Hinton. “Of the 44 students that we examined, one student was removed from the cohort without written documentation to confirm the reason the student was removed. A … printout shows the student withdrew for transfer to a private school. No official records request was provided.”

Asked to elaborate on the case, Hinton and Rena Philips, another MCPSS official, said the specific issue cited was the error of a single person at an individual school, not a systemwide effort to fudge graduation rates.

“Someone on the school level did not provide the official record request,” Philips said. “It actually doesn’t mean that the school doesn’t have it or that the student didn’t enroll. It just means that that that person at the school level did not upload it in the portal.”

When it comes to students not on a typical diploma track, Philips said, it’s not up to the local system whether or not to count the student as graduating; it’s up to state officials, who direct locals on how to make such measurements.

“Between the state and the federal government, what [MCPSS superintendent] Mrs. [Martha] Peek has said is we have followed and will continue to follow the directions that we get from the state on how to report our graduate. When we get a record that we know that he graduated or didn’t graduate, the state verifies it.”

State officials have already begun responding to the federal audit. State Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter said in a statement, “I’m extremely disappointed in those whose job it was to get this right. I prefer to praise in public and criticize in private. I’ve alluded to the discussions I’ve had internally with department leadership when I’ve spoken at board meetings about the importance of management. The management failures evident in this report are simply inexcusable.”

Controversy over graduation rates isn’t just a thing of the past. In May, state education officials posted graduation rates online but they were quickly removed after local districts challenged the numbers. An investigation into that matter is still ongoing.

In response to the audit, the ALSDE says it has suggested and begun to take corrective action to prevent similar errors from occurring again.