June 13, 2009

On graduation rates and auditing state databases

I sympathize with Florida's Deputy Commissioner of Education Jeff Sellers, finding himself defending the state's official graduation rate the week that Education Week published its Swanson-index issue and pointed to Florida as a low-graduation state, using numbers far below the state's official numbers.

Some perspective: Florida's official graduation rate is inflated, but it's still better than Swanson's. Florida's graduation rate does more than Swanson (i.e., does anything) to adjust for student transfers and the fact that ninth-grade enrollment numbers overestimate the number of first-time ninth graders. 

Because of Florida's state-level database and the programming/routine that already exists, Florida is much closer to the new federal regulatory definition of a graduation rate than many other states, and Commissioner Eric Smith has been preparing the state board and other interested parties for the likely effect of the change on the official published rate -- i.e., that the rate will be a visible quantum lower than the currently-published rates (and largely for the reasons I have explained in the 2006 paper linked above). So in a few years we'll get a closer estimate of graduation from a lay understanding (the proportion of 9th graders who graduate 4, 5, or 6 years later).

The point in the St Pete Times interview where I winced was Sellers's answer to the question of how the state (and the general public) knows that the exit codes entered for a student are accurate: Sellers said that his department conducts an "audit from a data perspective."

That statement is misleading. It is technically true that there is an audit in two senses: each school district is required to check its data for accuracy before sending the data to the state's servers, and the state conducts a search of students reported as withdrawn in one county to see if they entered another county system before labeling them dropouts. But while I have seen reference to checking that the withdrawal codes are correct, I have not seen any evidence that such checks have actually occurred, and I have been unable to find that evidence anywhere on the Florida Department of Education website. That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, but call me a touch skeptical. Without random checks, there is no guarantee that a 16-year-old coded as a transfer to another school actually was a transfer.

Given Florida's long experience with a state-managed education database, the lack of published audits of this process should caution us about the magic of state databases. They are important, but they need to be done properly. It makes sense to talk about the internal and external checks that should happen as other states construct databases and all states start to conform to the mandated longitudinal graduation rate:

  • Districts will need to be the first party to check accuracy, both in terms of preventing mistakes/fraud but also conducting consistency checks--are there any records which claim that a 45-year-old is attending kindergarten, for example? The first is supposed to happen in Florida, and I suspect that counties catch the low-hanging fruit in terms of errors. But the accuracy check on withdrawal code is the type of check that requires extensive follow-up to document whether a student identified as a transfer did in fact enroll in another school.
  • States will also need to conduct accuracy and consistency checks, though a state will necessarily be far less likely than school districts to catch outright fraud in claiming students transferred when they did not. 
  • States will also have to conduct the cross-checking that Florida currently performs every year and that I describe above: which students move between districts in the same state, but are counted as dropouts because a county only looks at its own students.
  • Finally, the auditing of transfer records would be MUCH easier if there is a standard way for school districts and individual schools to request the transfer of a student record and simultaneously use that authenticated request as verification that a transfer code is appropriate.

This is an incomplete list, but it's a start.

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Posted in Education policy on June 13, 2009 8:55 PM |