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Boston hit an all-time graduation high in 2022, but can the rate be trusted?

Students at Jeremiah Burke High School celebrated their graduation in 2016.Matthew J. Lee

Boston Public Schools hit its highest graduation rate ever last school year, with 81 percent of the senior class graduating — but the figure is marred by questions of accuracy, as the district has been faulted for wrongly removing students from would-be graduating classes, bolstering the district’s graduation rate.

It’s likely Boston’s Class of 2022 indeed graduated at a higher rate than ever before since students faced relaxed graduation requirements after the state MCAS exams they would have taken were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. With that hurdle removed, Massachusetts students overall saw an uptick in graduation rates, mirroring a trend across the country in 2020 when such waivers were more common. The state reached a record graduation rate of more than 90 percent.

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But Boston’s graduation rates remain unreliable: Last month, a third-party data review by Ernst and Young consultants largely confirmed state concerns about district data, including that the district may be overestimating its graduation rates. Last year, a Globe investigation revealed the district 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.

According to a sample of 100 student withdrawals analyzed by Ernst and Young, Boston did not have the required supporting documentation in about 80 percent of the cases to explain where the students went. That information is important because if the student transferred schools, they would be excluded from graduation rate calculations; if they dropped out, the district’s graduation rate would fall.

BPS declined to comment on the graduation rate, instead referring the Globe to comments by Superintendent Mary Skipper to the School Committee after the Earnst and Young report was released that cast shadows on how high the graduation rate really is.

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“As we continue to improve the Integrity of the withdrawal documentation and we change the codes back to drop out for those students that don’t have appropriate documentation, we will see likely an increase in the dropout rate and a decrease in the graduation rate until the systems are fully functioning and our re-engagement and in support efforts have taken hold,” Skipper said at the time. “That will likely be over the next year to two.”

The state acknowledged work Skipper and other administrators already have done to improve the reliability of the data.

While rising graduation rates were widespread in 2020, the national picture since then has been mixed. Many states restored exit exams and other requirements, and the pandemic stalled progress, said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University School of Education.

“The general national picture was a small increase in graduation rates in 2020,” Balfanz said in an e-mail. “In 2021, we saw a small overall decline and the majority — but not all states — showed declines, from .5 to 2 points.”

With the standards in many states back to normal, missed school time from COVID-19 disruptions was a drag on graduation; many students failed to attend or pass enough classes or opted to keep jobs they picked up during remote learning rather than go back to school, Balfanz said.

But it’s not yet clear what the national story was in 2022, Balfanz said. Some states have reported increases in dropout rates. Massachusetts joined Colorado and Michigan in reporting simultaneous rises in dropout rates and graduation rates. In the Massachusetts case, that happened because the proportion of students still in school declined.

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“In some ways, it’s possible that we won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on high school graduation rates until 2024 when we will see data on the students who had their 9th- and 10th-grade years disrupted, and who are more likely to find themselves significantly behind in the credits needed,” Balfanz said.

While current seniors must meet the restored Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation requirement, future classes will face an even higher bar: Massachusetts is increasing its standards to graduate by raising the MCAS score cutoff beginning with current ninth graders.

The change was based in large part on research by John Papay, an associate professor of education at Brown University, who concluded high school MCAS scores predict students’ long-term success and appear to reflect students’ academic skills, not simply their socioeconomic status or school characteristics. He also found most students who scored near the current passing cutoff didn’t fare well and didn’t appear to be college- or career-ready.

An open question, Papay said, is how the lower graduation requirements over the last three years will affect graduates. Even as the high school graduation rate has risen in Massachusetts, college enrollment has declined in recent years, he noted.

“That’s going to have big implications for student success and for the labor market in [Massachusetts] going forward,” Papay said.

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In Massachusetts and Boston, gains were not limited to any one group of students: almost every demographic subgroup tracked by the state reported its highest graduation rate ever. Low-income students and English learners had particularly big gains, while graduation rates for white students fell 0.2 percentage points.

Similarly, the rise in graduation rates was visible at most types of high schools in Boston, from traditional comprehensive high schools such as English to specialized schools such as Boston Latin.

As always, the exam schools posted the district’s highest graduation rates — over 98 percent — but the gap with most other schools narrowed. Traditional high schools posted a significant increase, with more than three-quarters of their students graduating for the first time on record. East Boston High School led the way, with more than 93 percent of students graduating — higher than the statewide average.

The Ernst and Young review did not identify any individual Boston schools as particular areas of concern for graduation rate data.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.