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Nearly every year for more than a decade one of Boston Public Schools’ proudest accomplishments has been its success in boosting graduation rates to historic highs. But behind the pomp and circumstance, a series of city audits has raised questions about those numbers for years, especially when counting immigrant students and others who leave before earning a diploma, according to a Globe review.
In five of the last seven years, the audits found school officials wrongfully removed dozens of students from would-be graduating classes by claiming, without documentation, that they transferred to another school, moved to another country, or died. In each of those instances, auditors could not find the paperwork to support the reasons for their departure, even though federal rules require such documentation to ensure accurate graduation rates.
So instead of being counted as students with an unknown status or as dropouts, both of which would drag down the graduation rate, they were simply removed from the equation altogether as transfers, strengthening the overall rate.
The misclassifications might mean administrators were unable to obtain the necessary documentation, which can be as simple as a staffer summarizing in writing a conversation with a student or family. Or it might mean the students dropped out and need support to re-enroll.
“It’s just another indication of how we’re failing some of the most marginalized kids in the district,” said John Mudd, a member of the Boston School Committee’s English Language Learners Task Force. “Not only should we know where these children have gone, we should know why. … If it was our failure, we need to understand how we can fix it.”
Boston’s lapses repeatedly prompted school leaders to vow in the audits they will rectify the problems — but so far, they haven’t done enough.
When investigators uncovered the problem for the fourth time, in 2019, BPS told the auditors in its written response it had fixed the problem, saying it “has put controls in place to require supporting documentation is provided each time a withdrawal code is entered into the system.”
But one year later, auditors found nearly half the students in a random sampling lacked the required paperwork.
BPS once again defended its oversight, but added it had created a working group to review all federal procedures and would update guidance for schools and train all employees responsible for compliance in this area.
“We are not in any way trying to mislead the city or our families or the federal government,” said district spokesman Jonathan Palumbo, in a recent interview. “We have a lot of work to do. ... This is something that we are aware of, that we have been deliberately working through, and that we will continue to address with our partners in schools, with our teachers, and with our families.”
The findings reflect a growing problem across the country as many districts are increasingly under pressure to increase their graduation rates. The US Department of Education has uncovered widespread violations with the classification of transfer students in audits of graduation rates in such states as Alabama, California, and Utah.
For students, this isn’t just an accounting problem. Specialized school staff are supposed to visit the homes of students who don’t show up after classes resume in the fall or who start regularly missing school, in an attempt to win them back.
“Sometimes students just need help understanding the steps it will take to graduate,” said Manny Allen, who typically manages a caseload of 600 to 800 students each year as the director of BPS’s reengagement center.
Allen also helps students find other schools within the district that better suit their needs. Students who aren’t listed as dropouts might not get this kind of attention.
In Boston, concerns about the validity of the city’s graduation rates have largely remained hidden as school leaders boasted an all-time high for students earning diplomas.
Last year, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius invited high school principals to gather outside English High School in Jamaica Plain for a surprise celebration. The class of 2020 had achieved “the highest four-year graduation rate for the district on record,” with 75.4 percent of students receiving their diplomas, up more than 10 percentage points from a decade ago.
Principals received a framed copy of a news story about the historic graduation rate.
While Cassellius was celebrating, auditors were digging into the documents for that very same graduating class, looking for proof that students who were said to have transferred to another school, left the country, or died, didn’t just quit school. KPMG, the independent auditor for Boston, dug into those rates in the city’s annual reviews of federal grant money spent by each city agency.
Graduation rates are key barometers state and federal governments use to judge school performance. In Massachusetts, low graduation rates can prompt state sanctions that can lead to the removal of principals and teachers.
But documenting the status of students, especially those who live in poverty or relocate from other countries or US territories, can be challenging for school administrators. Those students can be highly mobile, with frequent address and telephone changes. Or they may fear sharing personal information if they are in the country without authorization.
The auditors each year have been examining a random sampling of approximately 40 students, which they note is not a “statistically valid sample,” but they have detected problems with the lack of documentation dating back to 2014, spanning the tenure of four superintendents. BPS’ inability to rectify the problems prompted the auditors to elevate their findings in 2018 to a “material weakness,” indicating deficiencies in one or more internal controls.
Boston schools chief financial officer Nathan Kuder and chief of schools Corey Harris put principals, guidance staff, and secretaries on high alert in a memo on Sept. 28, 2021, writing “If we do not collectively and urgently improve the accuracy of our reporting, it may impact our federal entitlement grants and/or the City’s overall credit rating.”
For the graduating class of 2020, the year BPS leaders celebrated record-breaking graduation rates, about 400 of the approximately 4,000 students in the class as of freshman year dropped out while 122 transferred out of state, according to state data. Another 387 students transferred to another school within Massachusetts and 8 students died.
Auditors currently are examining a random sampling of 60 students the district said left BPS and didn’t drop out. In a memo to Cassellius on Jan. 3, Kuder wrote that a team of central office staff “have been able to confirm documentation for 42 of 60 students, and we are working with schools to create the rest.”
The Boston auditors are not the only ones who have uncovered a lack of documentation for transfer students in Massachusetts school districts.
The auditor’s first findings came one year after a 2013 national study on graduation rates published in the Journal of Economic Literature, a peer-reviewed academic journal. In one example, the study highlighted an urban high school in Massachusetts that claimed 90 students transferred to another public school in the state, but only 58 of them actually appeared on the rosters of those schools.
The report noted that in “absence of expensive monitoring” by state education agencies, many schools might have loose interpretations of the “confirmation in writing” rules, especially if they are under pressure to increase graduation rates and are unable to account for every student. The report also found that schools failed to submit documentation for transfer students who are Black and Latino at disproportionately higher rates.
“Anytime you have an accountability system, and it is producing information that puts a school at risk, understandably, there are incentives to respond in a way that minimizes that risk,” said Richard Murnane, an economist with the Harvard Graduate School of Education who authored the study, “U.S. High School Graduation Rates: Patterns and Explanations.”
“In fairness, if you are a high school principal and you and your staff are working incredibly hard to try to serve the kids you have and these kids have disappeared, what would you want to put on that form? ... There is some clear malpractice, but I think what’s even more common and a tougher situation is when kids just do disappear.”
A Massachusetts Education Department spokesperson said the agency hasn’t audited BPS’ graduation data, even though federal rules call on states to monitor such information.
“Please note that the superintendent has certified the accuracy of the data each year,” the spokesperson said, adding that BPS never shared the city audits with them.
In Boston, students still learning English are more likely to quit school than any other demographic group, except students in foster care, and accounted for more than half of Boston students who dropped out for the class of 2020, according to state data.
Districts have strong incentives to say immigrant students transferred or left the country, when they may have really dropped out to work or because they feel disconnected from their school, said Amaya Garcia, an expert on English learners at New America,a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
“If you are excluding these students from the rolls … then we don’t get a full comprehensive picture of what the outcomes are for these students,” said Garcia. ”We already know that immigrants have low graduation rates. It just really frustrates me that school systems have such a hard time meeting their needs.”