For the past decade, the Mississippi Department of Education manipulated graduation rates and has been “apathetic” about taking initiative to reduce the dropout rate, an investigation conducted by the state auditor’s office found. The Mississippi Department of Education denies these assertions.

“Mississippi’s teachers, parents, and administrators have worked together to improve our graduation rate over the past few years, and that’s a commendable, important achievement,” State Auditor Shad White said in a release. “But some of that improvement in the graduation rate, is just due to a change in the way MDE calculated the graduation rate. You have to be honest about it.”

The 17-page performance audit claimed the department didn’t accurately report graduation rates to the Mississippi State Board of Education or create the Office of Dropout Prevention, which was tasked with overseeing the statewide dropout prevention plan and increasing graduation rates.

In a 41-page response, state superintendent Carey Wright denied or clarified many of the report’s assertions.

“…the MDE emphatically denies the use of inapplicable graduation rate data when reporting to the State Board of Education and to the general public,” the letter, dated June 18 said. “The MDE has gone to great lengths to ensure accurate data (sic) is presented to the SBE and the public, and we take great umbrage at allegations to the contrary.”

The report said graduation and dropout rates were calculated to include repeaters, or students who repeated 12th grade until 2007, when the state board of education changed the way these rates are calculated and repeaters were no longer factored into the rates. According to the report, this altered the calculations to push Mississippi’s graduation rate to increase by nearly 10 points, from 61.1 percent to 70.8 percent within two months. The department didn’t alert the Legislature of the amended changes or amend the changes in the statewide prevention plan, the report said.

In response, Wright included documentation from 2007 that shows the department changed the way graduation rates are calculated because it had to due to a change in federal law. Before the change in 2007, graduation rates included students earning traditional diplomas and special education students earning occupational diplomas. But those special education students were removed from graduation rate calculations because federal requirements include “only students graduating from high school with a regular diploma.”

The department’s response said this change had a negligible effect, dropping the graduation rate for the 2004-2005 graduating cohort from 61.1% to 60.8% statewide. The response did not specifically address the auditor’s assertion that the department increased the statewide graduation rate by ten points in two months.

In Mississippi, the graduation rate is calculated in a “four-year cohort,” meaning, rather than count the number of students who graduated in a specific year, instead, this figure is calculated based on the students who started in the ninth grade and made it to 12th grade. This allows for a graduation rate of a full cohort rather than one 12th-grade class, and is “considered a more comprehensive picture of the issue of students’ persistence and high school completion,” according to the department. For example, the 2020 graduation rate represents the students who entered the ninth grade for the first time in the 2015-16 school year. Separately, the annual dropout rate is the number and percentage of students who drop out during one school year.

“Given the tremendous progress Mississippi students, teachers and schools have made over the past six years, it is disheartening to read a report that focuses on outdated procedures that have not been effective,” Wright said. “The State Board of Education Strategic Plan has modernized the state’s approach to education, which has resulted in historic and sustained student achievement across Mississippi.”

The state’s high school graduation rate is something department officials and politicians have lauded in recent years. That figure reached an all-time high for the 2018-19 school year, the most recent figure available, at 85 percent, while the dropout rate reached an all-time low of 9.7 percent, according to the department. There are some discrepancies in this figure, however — some schools with F ratings and very low proficiency rates have some of the highest graduation rates. When asked about this last fall, Wright acknowledged this was a concern.

“That is something we are looking at at the department level, to be honest,” Wright said at the time. “It’s hard to believe you have a high graduation rate when you have low proficiency rates.”

The report also said out of 139 local school districts, 73 percent of dropout prevention plans did not meet the department’s requirements. Nearly half of the graduation plans were not being monitored by the department; and 71 percent were not evidence-based, according to the report. It also stated the agency does not monitor if evidence-based programs are effective.

The department acknowledged it “does not have an individual dedicated solely to dropout prevention,” but the agency does have an Office of Dropout Prevention that operates within the Office of Secondary Education. The department also has a strategic plan surrounding long-term student achievement and outcomes, and the state board of education “established a long-term graduation goal of 90% by 2024-25,” Wright included in her response to the auditor’s report.

The auditor’s office had a list of recommendations for the department, including: re-establishing the Office of Dropout Prevention and hiring a director; updating the statewide dropout prevention plan and annually approving local plans; collecting data to measure areas for improvement in dropout prevention; and changing the statute to increase the graduation rate goal, benchmark years, among other suggestions.

Graduation rates for the most recent school year, 2019-20, will not be available until later in the year or early 2021.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.