Take Boston schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius’ appearance on CNN last March just as the district was starting to reopen. The CNN host noted that while Cassellius just had a “huge win” reporting the highest graduation rate ever for BPS in 2020, BPS had been struggling with chronic absenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic. While she acknowledged that challenge, Cassellius quickly pivoted. “We’re pretty proud of those high graduation rates for our 2020 class when the pandemic hit,” she said.
And indeed, those numbers — 73.2 percent of students ostensibly got a diploma, up 9 percentage points since 2014 — looked pretty impressive.
As it turns out, though, those numbers were suspect. The Globe’s Bianca Vázquez Toness and James Vaznis reported Monday that BPS may have been overstating graduation rates for five of the last seven years. Worse, it appears to be part of a pattern of faulty data coming out of the district. In December, Vázquez Toness reported on a data misreporting issue concerning the number of English-language learners that BPS wasn’t adequately serving.
This pattern calls into question every other statistic that the district reports to state and federal education authorities, and to the public. Getting the numbers right isn’t just a matter of sound bookkeeping: Inaccurate numbers may have had real consequences, camouflaging the true extent of problems in the district and insulating officials from accountability. For instance, the state trusted the district’s self-reported data in its most recent audit, which disappointed some education reform advocates when it failed to recommend a state takeover of the district.
Now some of the numbers on which that report was based are under a cloud. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley should launch a new review of BPS, independently double-check every number out of the district, and adjust the findings and outcome of the previous audit if accurate numbers alter any of his conclusions.
If BPS has confidence in the accuracy of all other self-reported data, then the district should be eager to open its books for a full accounting. For Mayor Michelle Wu, who is big on transparency and open data in government, it’s a chance to show leadership.
The data reporting issue regarding graduation statistics predates Cassellius. In fact, it involves the previous three superintendents. A BPS spokesperson told the Globe that the district is aware of the issue and has been working on fixing it. “We are not in any way trying to mislead the city or our families or the federal government,” he told the Globe.
The district went awry by incorrectly removing many students from graduating classes without properly documenting a legitimate reason for doing so (i.e., the student transferred schools, moved overseas, or was deceased). Federal regulations require proper documentation of such departures precisely to make sure the calculation of graduation rates is accurate and that dropouts are counted as such.
Students who drop out of high school or whose status is unknown bring down the graduation rate. At BPS, some students without proper documentation to be identified as a drop out or given unknown status weren’t even counted in the calculation and were instead classified as transfers, which may have made the graduation rate artificially high in recent years, according to the Globe’s findings.
What’s most egregious about the possible misclassification of those students is that it may actually have prevented some students who stopped attending classes from getting extra resources and services, such as visits from school staff or other reengagement measures, to get them back into school. And, just as with the English-language learner reporting issue, the graduation data problem concerns some of the most marginalized students in the district.
State oversight of school districts exists to ensure that all Massachusetts children get the education they deserve. State officials should launch another audit of Boston schools and follow the facts — the accurate facts — wherever they lead.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.