Since 2006, the Mississippi Department of Education is required by state law to staff an Office of Dropout Prevention to ensure schools meet benchmarks for lowering the state’s dropout rate.
An audit report released Thursday by State Auditor Shad White says that the agency has not only ignored the law for more than 10 years, it changed the way it reports dropout rates to improve them without making the progress it represented.
According to the report, the Office of Dropout Prevention has not existed as required by statute since 2009. Without the office, the state has no adherence to dropout prevention plan adopted in 2007 and no annual evaluation.
In addition, MDE overstated its progress toward meeting the statutorily mandated graduation rate goal of 85% to the Mississippi Board of Education.
“Mississippi’s teachers, parents, and administrators have worked together to improve our graduation rate over the past few years, and that’s a commendable, important achievement,” White said in a statement. “But some of that improvement in the graduation rate, is just due to a change in the way MDE calculated the graduation rate. You have to be honest about it.”
“Beginning in accountability year 2007, graduation and dropout rates, which were previously calculated to include repeating students, were calculated without including repeating students,” the report states. “This change rendered the benchmarks obsolete and overstated the progress that Mississippi has made in moving toward the Legislature’s objective of an 85% graduation rate.”
“Essentially, MDE met their two-year benchmark within two months by altering the calculation method and gave themselves a roughly ten (10) point head start towards meeting the 85% graduation rate goal,” the report added.
It further concluded that 73% of Mississippi School District plans did not meet MDE standards and the agency was not monitoring about half the programs in the districts and not providing necessary support.
“During review of this report with MDE, the agency acknowledged their culpability in mismanaging the goal and benchmarks.”
Auditors learned that those in the agency responsible for implementing the prevention plan didn’t know of the plan’s existence. Because of a fire in 2015, files of the plan were discarded due to limited storage space.
Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright disputed the findings in a statement issued Thursday.
“This audit completely ignores the progress made in performance by schools, districts and students across Mississippi,” Wright said. “This project was described as a performance audit, but there are no performance metrics included in the report.”
Since the Strategic Plan was adopted in 2014, the MDE has 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 an historic low of 9.7%, a decrease from 13.9% in 2014; and significantly improved student achievement from pre-K through grade 12, MDE stated in its response.
MDE “emphatically denies” the charges made in the audit report that a change in reported resulted in a bump in the graduation rate. “The MDE calculates the four-year graduation rate in accordance with the definition established in Section 8101(25) of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” the MDE statement says.
“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 toAudit says MDE ‘overstated progress’ on dropout rates and did not follow state law 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.”here.