A report by Mississippi state Auditor Shad White’s office accuses the Mississippi Department of Education of meeting graduation goals by changing how it calculates the graduation rate.
The auditor’s office also said that the MDE didn’t maintain an Office of Dropout Prevention and neglected its record-keeping responsibilities as required by state law.
The Legislature passed a law that created an Office of Dropout Prevention in 2006 and auditors found that a director hasn’t been employed by the MDE since 2009, when the last director resigned and wasn’t replaced. The law says that the state superintendent shall appoint a director for the ODP, which means the agency must perform the task or be in violation.
The law also set a goal of an 85 percent graduation rate by the 2018-2019 school year, with each district implementing a plan that was to be approved by the MDE.
Auditors found the MDE has not conducted an annual evaluation of local dropout prevention plans mandated by law since 2014 and that 73 percent of district-level plans failed to meet MDE requirements.Auditors also discovered that only 29 percent of these programs are evidence-based.
Even the evidence-based programs, according to the report, were not implemented properly absent MDE supervision.
The way the MDE changed its reporting on graduation and dropout rates was by calculating them without including repeating students. In 2007, when this change went into effect after being approved by the state Board of Education, the graduation rate increased from 61.6 percent to 70.8 percent, which the report says rendered the benchmarks in the 2006 law obsolete and overstated the progress made toward the 85 percent graduation rate goal.
Incredibly, auditors found that 36 years of records that are supposed to be sent to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History from 1975 to 2011 were missing, despite state law requiring that state agencies send those records to the MDAH. After a 2015 fire at MDE headquarters in downtown Jackson damaged many records, MDE discarded some dropout-related files that weren’t damaged, saying they “were no longer needed” and trashed because of “limited storage space.”
According to the report, the full extent of what was discarded is unclear.
The MDE wasted little time in responding, saying that its Office of Secondary Education handles its dropout prevention program and that it calculates graduation rates within the definition established by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“This audit completely ignores the progress made in performance by schools, districts, and students across Mississippi,” said state superintendent of education Carey Wright in a news release. “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.”
Mississippi’s dropout rate has declined from 13.9 percent in 2014 to an all-time low of 9.7 percent in 2020. The graduation rate in 2020 of 85 percent was an all-time high as well.