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Audit: State office changed dropout records to improve stats

(AP) — Mississippi’s Department of Education failed to maintain an Office of Dropout Prevention for the last 10 years as required by state law and overstated its progress toward increasing graduation rates, the state auditor announced Thursday.
The graduation rate in the state was reported to have increased from 61% in 2006 to 85% by 2019. State Auditor Shad White said a lot of this increase is attributed to the way the Department of Education calculates its graduation rate, not pure improvement in student retention.
“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,” White said in a press release. “But some of that improvement in the graduation rate, is just due to a change in the way Mississippi Department of Education calculated the graduation rate. You have to be honest about it.”
State Superintendent of Education Carey M. Wright said in a response to the report Thursday that while she acknowledges that some of the Department’s efforts have not been met in accordance with the law, department officials “have significant concerns over the lack of recognition for progress made in performance by schools, districts, and students across Mississippi” in the auditor’s report.
Wright said the Department of Education’s graduation rate is calculated each year in accordance with federal regulations.
“The MDE has gone to great lengths to ensure accurate data is presented to the SBE and the public, and we take great umbrage at allegations to the contrary,” she said.
In 2006, the Mississippi Legislature voted to create an Office of Dropout Prevention at Mississippi Department of Education to help reduce the dropout rate. The Office of Dropout Prevention created the Statewide Dropout Prevention Plan to meet its obligations under state law, White said.
One of the requirements under the plan for the Department of Education was to hire a Office of Dropout Prevention director, a position that has not existed since 2009. The Department of Education was mandated to do outreach to local school districts to evaluate their dropout prevention plans, which it has not done since 2014, White wrote in his report. Further, the Mississippi Department of Education employees listed as being responsible for statewide dropout prevention were not aware a Statewide Dropout Prevention Plan existed, White wrote.
The plan also established a list of goals for improving the dropout rate by year as a guide for reaching the an 85% statewide high school graduation rate. However, months following the release of Mississippi Department of Education Board approved Statewide Dropout Prevention Plan in 2007, the State Board of Education also approved changes to the Mississippi School Information System that significantly altered the way graduation and dropout rates were calculated, according to the report.
Beginning in 2007, graduation and dropout rates, which were previously calculated to include students who repeated their senior year, were calculated without including repeating students.
With the calculation change, the graduation rate increased by 9.7 points from 61.1% to 70.8% in 2007, White wrote in the report. Mississippi Department of Education officials did not notify the Legislature so they could amend the law to account for this change, White said.
Auditors also found that 73% of district-level dropout prevention plans failed to meet requirements set by the Department of Education, and approximately half of these programs statewide are not monitored by the Mississippi Department of Education. Auditors also found only 29% of these programs are based on evidence.
White’s report recommends the Department of Education reestablish the Office of Dropout Prevention and update benchmarks set in the Statewide Dropout Prevention Plan to account for changes in how graduation rates are calculated. The report also suggests the Legislature consider taking action to ensure the Office of Dropout Prevention is operational and submits regular legislative updates.