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State Auditor claims MDE manipulated graduation rates

The state auditor’s office released a report Thursday alleging that the Mississippi State Department of Education manipulated how graduation rates were calculated so graduation statistics would improve.

In 2006 the Legislature required MDE to increase the state graduation rate from 61 percent to 85 percent by 2019. The language in the statute requires MDE to establish an Office of Dropout Prevention and to establish two-year benchmarks as guidelines for increasing the graduation rate.

The auditor’s report found that in April 2007 MDE changed the way it evaluated graduation rates to no longer include students who repeated 12th grade and to follow a four year cohort of students instead of a two year cohort.

In a press release, MDE states that the four year cohort it uses is in accordance with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

According to the auditor’s report, if MDE had used the two year cohort benchmark, graduation rates in the 2018-2019 school year would have been 75 percent, while the graduation rate calculated by the four year cohort benchmark was 85 percent.

Either way the graduation rate is calculated, it has improved since 2006. But the auditor’s report alleges that removing repeating students from the calculation increased the graduation rate in 2007 by 9.7 percentage points from 61.1 percent to 70.8 percent.

In a letter from State Superintendent Carey Wright, MDE responded that the report “does not recognize the improvement in graduation rate and the reduction in dropout rate seen as a result of the work of MDE and educators across the state.”

The auditor’s report also found that MDE has not had an Office of Dropout Prevention since 2009. The report’s findings include that there was no adherence to a Statewide Dropout

Prevention Plan that MDE created in 2007 and that MDE has not done annual evaluations of local dropout prevention plans since 2014. The auditor’s report found that 71 percent of local school districts have drop out prevention plans that are not evidence based.

In a press release, MDE responded that no state funds were specifically targeted for the Office of Dropout Prevention and dropout prevention efforts are both led by the Office of Secondary Education and “are embedded throughout the Mississippi State Board of Education Strategic Plan.”

MDE reported a record low dropout rate in 2020 at 9.7 percent, down from 13.4 percent in 2014.

The auditor’s report includes 28 recommendations, 19 of which MDE agreed with, the report states.

For the 2018-2019 school year, MDE reported Pearl River County School District’s graduation rate at 88.4 percent, Poplarville School District’s graduation rate at 94.7 percent and Picayune School District’s graduation rate at 77.1 percent.