Gaming graduation rates

By: Tonya Mead, CFE, CHFI, PI, MBA,MA Educational Psychology

The Office of Inspector General is auditing the four year graduation rate of students attending public secondary schools in  Alabama and California. In previous years the student graduation rates of  Washington State and South Dakota were audited. Innocent school level data-related errors were cited by the state education agencies as the cause. So what if Alabama public school students’ graduation rate skyrocketed by 17% from 2011, California by almost 8%  and Washington State by 6 percentage points?

Why is this important?

The former No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 sought to close the achievement gap of poor and minority students and instituted tighter accountability measures. At the time of its enactment, about “one million, or roughly one in four, U.S. students drop out [of school] each year. ” About 1,550 schools are dropout factories, or just “12 percent of the nation’s high schools produce fully half of the country’s dropouts.”

Dropout factories

Schools are designated as dropout factories when less than 60% of entering freshman fail to graduate in 4 years and instead dropout. By 2012, these states:  Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, Tennessee and New York, incidently  experienced the “largest jump in graduation rates since the annual study began in 2002.”

While dropout factories are identified by the 60% baseline, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) determined that schools with 67% or lower graduation rates are categorized as “low graduation rate schools.”

Graduation rate and accountability

The U.S. Department of Education on the secondary level and accreditors on the college level use various metrics to determine the quality of education services and to predict the future success of its students.  The rate at which students graduate is an “important indicator of educational success and an essential milestone on the road to college or a career with a living wage.”

According to the National Education Association  (NEA) “charter, virtual and alternative high schools make up 52 percent of all low-graduation-rate high schools in the nation, compared to 41 percent for regular public schools.” The NEA further elaborates that, “charter schools currently account for about eight percent of all high schools. Of these, 30 percent are classified as low-graduation-rate schools.

City versus suburbs

America’s Promise Alliance analyzed 2004-05 graduation data and compared city public schools with suburban schools.  One case in point highlights the stark contrasts between student performance in the city and suburbs; Baltimore city’s public schools, only 34.6 percent of the students graduated from high school, compared with 81.5 residing in the suburbs. This is almost a 50 point differential.

Positive change can happen

Schools implementing after-school, extended school year, credit recovery, targeted tutoring and school day double-block advisories can improve graduation rates. However, this effort takes time and effort. Many chose instead to game the data.

Educators gaming the data

Under NCLB (before ESSA), schools experiencing low graduation rates were subject to federal sanctions such as: “forced use of federal money for private tutoring, easing student transfers, and restructuring of school staff.”

The threat of sanctions and state-takeover of schools was motive for education officials to game student performance data, to include gradation rates. For this reason, the U.S. Department of Education in 2008, developed a graduation rate formula to be applied uniformly by all states.

Data tampering and manipulation hurts us all

As we have seen however, old habits die hard. Without the threat of sanctions, education officials have become addicted to data tampering, data manipulation, and misrepresentation. Which is why the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General is seeking to “determine whether selected [state education agencies] have implemented systems of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to ensure that reported graduation rates are accurate and reliable.”

Is data-related, cyber crime, and computer-assisted crime in education acceptable? Is it ok to manipulate data to improve one’s competitive standing or to receive performance bonuses?

Without accurate and timely data, schools can not identify the barriers to student success. policy-makers can not develop targeted policies to make impactful change, parents can not fully access their child’s readiness for college and career,  and educators can not create successful intervention strategies for students ‘at risk’ of dropping out. Although graduation rate is a lagging indicator, there is no excuse for data tampering and manipulation. We are only shortchanging our most vulnerable when we allow such practices to continue.

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Tonya J. Mead, CFE, CHFI, PI, MBA, MA, Certified K-12 Administrator and School Psychologist is author of Fraud in Education: Beyond the Wrong Answer and president of Shared Knowledge, LLC