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Alabama Ignored Rules, Inflated Graduation Rate, Audit Finds

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 A federal audit has found that Alabama inflated its state graduation rate by improperly including students who earned alternative diplomas, students who hadn't earned enough credit, and, in at least one case, a student who had died.

According to an audit released late last week by the inspector general's office of the U.S. Department of Education, federal officials told Alabama in 2011 and 2012 not to include the alternative diplomas in its graduation-rate count.

Federal rules in effect since 2008 require states to calculate the graduation rate as the number of students who earn a "regular" diploma four years after entering high school.

But then-state Superintendent Tommy Bice disagreed with the federal directive to exclude alternative diplomas, arguing that they reflected mastery of the state's academic standards, so his department factored them in to the graduation rate.

The audit concluded that by including those diplomas, Alabama had "improperly inflated" its graduation rate between 2011 and 2014. The alternative diplomas, known as "Alabama occupational diplomas," were awarded to special education students who chose a curriculum that focused on life skills and work habits because they wanted to find jobs after high school, the audit says.

"We found that [the Alabama state department of education]'s system of internal control did not provide reasonable assurance that reported graduation rates were accurate and complete during our audit period," the report said.

Checking records, the inspector general's office found many cases of students who should not have been counted as graduates because they hadn't earned enough credits. In one case, a student had died before earning enough credits, but was still counted.

One of the weaknesses of Alabama's system, the audit says, was that it didn't sufficiently police its districts' graduation statistics, believing that it was the districts' responsibility to provide correct information to the state, the audit said.

The audit recommends that Alabama develop a suite of new controls over graduation-rate data, including tighter oversight of districts' calculations and a written policy for how state-level officials should examine and report the data. 

It's now up to the U.S. Department of Education "to determine how it will address our recommendations," said Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the inspector general's office. 

In a May 2 letter of "concurrence" to the inspector general's office, Michael Sentance, the state's current superintendent, enclosed a corrective action plan that outlines the steps the state will take to tighten oversight of graduation-rate calculations at the state and district levels, including review of student transcript information as verification. 

When the U.S. Department of Education announced an all-time national graduation-rate high of 83.2 percent in the fall of 2016, Alabama was the state with the third-highest rate, having gained 17 points between 2011 and 2015 . But it acknowledged last December that its graduation rate was inflated. 

The inspector general's office is still working on an audit of California's graduation rate. And it plans an audit of one more state's graduation rate, Grant said, but she declined to name the state.


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