Since 2015, editorials have been pointing out how Mississippi’s high school graduation rate has been inflated by a watering down of standards by the Mississippi Department of Education and the board that oversees it.

It was no coincidence, though rarely acknowledged by officials at MDE, that graduation rates began to steadily improve after the state adopted several alternatives to earning a diploma if a student could not pass the four subject area tests that previously had been required to graduate.

But the graduation inflation, we now learn from State Auditor Shad White, actually started eight years earlier, and under a different MDE administration.

White, who has done an excellent job in his short time in office discovering not just misspending and fraud but government duplicitousness, exposed this week what appears to have been a dirty little secret at MDE: The agency changed the methodology for calculating the graduation rate in 2007 and didn’t tell the Legislature or the rest of the public about it.

Back then, MDE was under the gun of a new state law that was designed to address Mississippi’s dismally low graduation rate and dismally high dropout rate. A 2006 statute dictated, among other things, that MDE put a measurable plan in place to get the graduation rate from 60.1%, as it was that year, to 85% by 2019.

In 2007, MDE, under then Superintendent Hank Bounds, made a change, with the Board of Education’s approval, in how the graduation rate was calculated, giving the public schools a huge head start toward meeting that 85% goal.

Prior to 2007, if a student had to repeat 12th grade, he or she was counted as not graduating, thus lowering the graduation rate — a perfectly logical way to measure it. Starting in 2007, however, repeaters were excluded from the equation. The net effect was an immediate 10-point boost in the graduation rate.

Although the current superintendent of education, Dr. Carey Wright, did not arrive on the scene until 2013, she doesn’t get off the hook from the performance audit’s findings.

It says Wright, as did her predecessors, continued to ignore parts of the 2006 state law, which mandated the Department of Education maintain an Office of Dropout Prevention, with its own director, to coordinate the state’s efforts on reducing dropouts. That office has not existed since 2009, the auditors found.

In addition, according to the audit, MDE has become apathetic about local school districts’ efforts to reduce the dropout rate. It found that 73% of the local districts’ dropout prevention plans don’t meet MDE’s own requirements and 49% are not being monitored by MDE, as required by the 2006 law.

Maybe that 2006 law was too ambitious. Maybe it was too much legislative micromanaging. Maybe it was just too hard to stick with.

But clearly the intent was not to play with the math and lower the bar in order to hit the target. That’s precisely what MDE has done. It knowingly created a false picture as to how much progress the state has made in producing students with the skills expected of a high school graduate.

The truth might actually be that the academic improvement has been modest rather than astronomic.

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