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Alabama’s Education Department posts erroneous grad rates, but was it sabotage?

By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama State Department of Education had to remove error-filled graduation data from its website on Tuesday, the latest setback for a department that has suffered more than its fair share of late.

After APR and reported early on Tuesday that the graduation data had been pulled due to errors, ALSDE released a statement later in the afternoon saying mistakes were made in data manipulation. State superintendent Michael Sentance also said the department erred in releasing the data to the media without having it verified by local superintendents.

The combination of mistakes sent the education world into a panic over the weekend, as local superintendents and principals started to realize that the data surprisingly posted by ALSDE was filled with errors. As an example of the problems, a source at ALSDE confirmed two schools’ valedictorians had been ruled as non-graduate “completers” – a designation reserved for students who complete special education curriculum.

The problem, ALSDE confirmed, stemmed from problems the state had in recording its graduation rates in previous years – an issue uncovered by a Federal investigation. The US Department of Education told Alabama officials that they had to reconfigure the way they determined grad rates and remove special education curriculum students from the total numbers. Those students account for about 2 percent of the total student body population.

In an effort to comply with those new parameters, ALSDE personnel began reclassifying students who had taken courses in the special ed curriculum. However, because not all systems classify courses in the exact same manner, a number of mistakes were made in identifying the special education courses at various schools.

“The two valedictorians, from my understanding, took study hall courses that were classified improperly after the changes,” said Eric Mackey, the Executive Director of the Alabama Superintendents Association. “It was a mistake. The better question here is why it happened.”

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That’s a question Sentance said he plans to answer.

In the release, Sentance said there would be an investigation into what occurred. Sources at ALSDE told APR that Sentance was livid over the release of the data and there is some question whether the erroneous data was released intentionally to hurt him.

Sentance has been on the job less than a year and it’s been a bumpy start to his tenure. Last month, the State Board of Education held a special meeting only to chastise him over a lack of communication. Questionable decisions and horrible PR have cost him one-time supporters. Late Tuesday, state Sen. Dick Brewbaker, who has worked with Sentance on the intervention into Montgomery’s school system, said on social media that he would be OK with Sentence “cleaning out his desk by Friday.”

But others within ALSDE are questioning how the data could have been released. It’s standard protocol for graduation numbers to be sent to the local superintendents so local systems can check the numbers against their in-house data. ALSDE typically gives the local systems at least a full day to verify it.

The data released last Friday was originally verified late last fall. But its release was held due to the federal investigation. After the problems with the original calculations of grad rate data were announced by Sentance in early December, ALSDE set about reworking the numbers and removing the students in the special education curriculum.

But those figures, which were recently compiled, had yet to be verified by the local systems – something that was known to everyone who handled the data.

According to one source, a reporter requested the new graduation rate data early in the day last Friday but was told it wasn’t available yet. Later in the day, an ALSDE official called to say it was available.

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“I don’t know what happened, but this is the second time in a year now that parents and the public are hearing that the graduation data is wrong,” Mackey said. “You have to wonder how many times this can happen before they start to question the credibility of it.”


Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.