JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) strongly disagrees with claims State Auditor Shad White that the agency altered data to improve graduation rates.
White announced on Thursday that MDE failed to maintain an Office of Dropout Prevention for the last 10 years as required by state law.
“[MDE] takes great offense at the auditor’s report because it essentially accuses us of lying or using inaccurate information, inaccurate numbers, in our calculation of graduations,” said Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer for the agency.
In a statement released on the agency’s website, MDE said it held up a sustained record of improved student achievement over the past six years – particularly the state’s record-low dropout rate – in response to the Office of the State Auditor’s performance audit for the MDE Office of Dropout Prevention.
MDE’s release states the audit erroneously cites MDE for using inapplicable graduation rate data when reporting to the Mississippi State Board of Education and the public. MDE said it calculates the four-year graduation rate in accordance with the definition established in Section 8101(25) of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“Our graduation rate is calculated in accordance with federal law,” Oakley said.
White said over the course of the investigation, they found no evidence the Legislature had been notified by MDE about changing the rate to align with federal law.
“If you’re gonna make a change, if you’re gonna move the goal posts, it’s best to let everybody know that the goal posts are being moved, and then we can take that into account when we get a press release from MDE saying the graduation rate has improved so much,” White said. “That’s the main thing. The public just needs to know how these numbers are calculated.”
Oakley took issue with that, telling 3 On Your Side that details about the 2007 rate change were made public during State Board of Education meetings.
“We shared extensive details about that process with the state auditor’s office in February of this year, painted a complete picture of what was done, how it was done. But all of that information was excluded when the final report came out,” Oakley said.
MDE states Mississippi law established the Office of Dropout Prevention in 2006, but added that no specific state funds are targeted for the office.
MDE said the OSA report made no mention of the agency’s broader, updated strategy to improve student achievement and how it successfully raised student outcomes.
“This audit completely ignores the progress made in performance by schools, districts, and students across Mississippi,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “This project was described as a performance audit, but there are no performance metrics included in the report.”
The OSA audit cited the MDE for not adhering to the 2006 law because it no longer operates a stand-alone dropout prevention office, in which they say the OSA disregards the fact that the MDE’s Office of Secondary Education leads agency-wide dropout prevention efforts.
MDE stated that those efforts are embedded throughout the Mississippi State Board of Education Strategic Plan.
Since the Strategic Plan was adopted in 2014, MDE says they have spearheaded initiatives that pushed the state’s graduation rate to an all-time high of 85%, up from 74.5% in 2014; reduced the state’s dropout rate to a historic low of 9.7%, a decrease from 13.9% in 2014; and significantly improved student achievement from pre-K through grade 12.
“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 nation now considers Mississippi a leader in education because our students are making faster progress than nearly every other state.”
White, however, believes ultimately MDE will need to correct these issues his investigation uncovered.
“I think ultimately MDE as an entity is responsible. I have no idea if Dr. Wright said ‘shut the program down’ or there was negligence,” White said. “Frankly, the bottom line to me is the Office of Dropout Prevention did not exist as it was supposed to and anybody who was at MDE who should have been setting that office up did something they shouldn’t have done, and now they should set that back up.”
Read the MDE’s complete response to the OSA audit.