Ken Hare In Depth: Even after grade changes, MPS graduation rates sad

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Although no one is saying how much effect the grade-changing scandal in the Montgomery Public Schools had on the system's graduation rates, this much is sure -- the rates are embarrassingly low, changes or no changes. The Montgomery Public Schools graduation rate is just 66 percent, and one of the high schools caught up in the scandal graduated just 49 percent of its students on time.

A system spokesman said local school officials still have not seen the full report on the results of an investigation of grades changed for students at three Montgomery high schools, so they cannot say precisely how much impact the changes had on the graduation rates at the schools.

But spokesman Tom Salter said he believes the impact from the grade changes that affected about 200 students was minimal.

"I believe the 200 students are spread out over multiple years, three schools, and we know they weren't all seniors," he wrote in response to inquiries. "So my assumption is that it had very little effect."

Still, even with the  improperly changed grades, the system's graduation rate was only 66 percent for the Montgomery County public school system. That compares to 72 percent for all public high schools in the state.

While state and local school officials are not providing any specific information on the extent of the impact on graduation rates, it appears there was at least some. In a letter to MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson, state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice wrote that "grades were changed, transcripts altered, and credit for graduation awarded" without meeting the minimum state requirements.

I asked his spokesman for Bice to explain how much this would have affected graduation rates and whether the MPS situation raised questions of whether the state needed to modify its oversight of all systems, not just Montgomery. Bice responded in an email:  "Due to pending actions I would hold any comments, especially assumptions, at this point."

The grade-changing probe found problems at three Montgomery high schools -- Jefferson Davis, Lanier and Lee.  The graduation rate for the 2010-2011 school year for Jefferson Davis was just 49 percent. (Only six of the state's 500 high schools had a lower graduation rate than Jefferson Davis.) For Lanier the rate was 68 percent.

But Lee High School had a graduation rate of 85 percent -- far higher than any other non-magnet MPS high school and significantly higher than the state average for all schools.

Some background: Until the 2010-2011 school year, Alabama had calculated its graduation rates on a completely different system. Many other states had their own system as well. To bring some uniformity to graduation rates, all states agreed to use the same system to calculate rates.

After the change, all of Montgomery's non-magnet high schools except Lee and the majority of non-magnet high schools in the state saw their graduation rates drop. But Lee's graduation rate actually rose from 84 percent under the old system of calculating rates to 85 percent under the new system.

In the final years of the old system, Montgomery County's graduation rate increased significantly. The entire system rate went from 79 percent to 84.87 percent to 88.73 percent in the final three years of using the old calculations.

-- Over than same span, Jefferson Davis High saw its graduation rates go from 69 percent to 80.8 percent to 81.4 percent, only to drop to 49 percent under the new method of calculating rates.

-- Lanier went from 92 percent to 86.63 percent to 93.24 percent, dropping to 68 percent under the new method.

-- Lee went from 72 percent to 76.68 percent to 84.33 percent, then actually edged up to 85 percent under the new method.

A spokesman for the school system said that school officials who handle data on graduation "were able to reconcile withdrawals, transfers, dropouts, missing records for cohort 07-08 which increased the size of the numerator and decreased the population in the denominator."

I'm sorry, but I don't come close to understanding that. But data provided by the system show that of the 389 students in the ninth grade in the 2007-2008 school year, 332 graduated from Lee in 2010-2011, accounting for the 85 percent graduation rate.

It may prove to be that Lee managed to show so much improvement and do so much better than other non-magnet schools on graduation rates through perfectly legitimate programs and hard work. But the grade-changing scandal throws a cloud over the situation even if that were to be the case.

When the scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs struck Major League Baseball, some sports commentators argued that hitting statistics -- especially home run statistics -- should have an asterisk by those players known to have used the drugs.

Perhaps the graduation rates for these three schools where grades are known to have been changed improperly need to have asterisks by them as well.

The people of Montgomery County deserve to know just how reliable the graduation rates for these three schools are. It may prove that the 200 students who benefited from grade changes did not have a major effect on the rates, but the public still deserves to know.

Here is the saddest part: Even if the current reported rates prove to be solid, they still would indicate that more than one of every three public school students in Montgomery County did not graduate on time.


Ken Hare is a veteran Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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