July 29, 2015

State Withholds High School Graduation Rates

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In more than half the school districts in Oklahoma, parents interested in knowing the graduation rates of their child’s school or district are out of luck.

The state Department of Education refuses to release the graduation rates for 58 percent of the state’s public school districts and charter schools, mostly smaller ones. The department says that according to its legal interpretation, doing so would violate a state law meant to protect student privacy.

That means the 2013-2014 graduation rates for districts such as Piedmont, Bethany, Drumright, Sulphur and Perry – and for charter schools such as Harding Charter Preparatory High School – are under wraps. Overall, the cloaking applies to 249 of the state’s 419 high-school-level districts and charter schools.

The reasons cited are House Bill 1989, approved in 2013, and an administrative code written by the Education Department for applying the law. The code says any data with counts of fewer than 10 students must be withheld.

On April 8, Oklahoma Watch filed a records request with the Education Department seeking graduation rates for every district and charter school in the state. On July 23, the department provided a list but redacted the graduation numbers and percentages – and in some cases the total number of students counted – for the 249 districts and charter schools.

These districts and schools tended to be smaller ones with high or low graduation percentages, meaning fewer than 10 students graduated or failed to graduate. In some cases the total number of students counted was fewer than 10, so that number was redacted.

The graduation rate is based on the percentage of incoming freshmen who graduate within four school years. The state’s overall graduation rate for 2013-2014 was 83 percent, down from 85 percent in 2012-2013, according to figures from the Oklahoma and U.S. Departments of Education.

Legislators who authored HB 1989 said the state Education Department is overreaching in interpreting the statute, called the Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act of 2013.

The law was written to prevent sensitive student information from being given to testing vendors. It states, however, that aggregated data for the state, districts and schools can be released.

“We should have the graduation rates,” said Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, a co-author of the law. “We don’t need to publish Social Security numbers and names.”

Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, another co-author, said the department is “seriously over-interpreting” the law by adding its own rule limiting what information can be released.

“This will merit some close review by the Legislature,” he said. “I hope they do something before we have to get involved.”

Education Department spokesman Phil Bacharach said the department is looking at changing the code, which was created under the previous school superintendent’s administration and approved by the Legislature and governor.

The department must follow the rule as long as it remains in place, Bacharach said.

Bacharach said any new rule would have to be approved by the Legislature in the 2016 session and then signed by the governor.

“The department inherited an interpretation of the law and is in the process of reviewing that interpretation, and whether it ensures transparency while also honoring individual students’ privacy,” he said.

Joey Senat, who teaches media law at Oklahoma State University, said it’s “outrageous” that an agency can write a rule that goes against the law itself, with its provision for releasing aggregated data, and against the Open Records Act.

Under the department’s legal argument, government organizations could write their own rules in a fashion that exempts them from meeting the state’s open records law, Senat said.

“I don’t recall ever hearing a government agency doing this,” Senat said. “It seems we have a government organization conjuring a new way to keep information secret.”

  • Tesssa

    Joey Senat may think withholding this information is outrageous but other government agencies do, in fact, do this. I receive data from IRS and social service agency sources that omits information and the consistent standard is for populations of 10 or less. The interpretation of the law is not unreasonable but, as the article points out, it can be changed. Extrapolating from the current regulation to the contention that government organizations could write rules exempting themselves from the Open Records Act reflects the continuing trend in journalism to to offer gross, unfounded speculation as news. The fact that the person proffering this speculation is on the journalism faculty does not bode well for our future.

  • Emma Halper

    FERPA’s definition of Personally Identifiable Information includes “Other information that, alone or in combination, is linked or linkable to a specific student that would allow a reasonable person in the school community, who does not have personal knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to identify the student with reasonable certainty.” With the right combination of aggregate data from low n-sizes, it’s possible to deduce information about individual students. Because disclosure of aggregate information from low n-size groups can lead to inadvertent disclosure of PII when used in combination of with other aggregate data, the Department is acting correctly here to comply not only with FERPA, but to protect student privacy in accordance with the requirements of HB 1989. Because disclosure of aggregate student data can occur at the local level as well as at the state level, it’s impossible for the OSDE to track all releases of aggregate student data outside of its control. As a parent of a child in a small school, I’d much rather the Department err on the side of caution in protecting my child’s privacy. Those individual privacy protections are more important to me than your news story. In addition, when seeking comment on legal issues, I wish the media would stop misrepresenting this journalism professor as authoritative on legal analysis and issues of law and seek comment from an actual attorney.

  • Richard

    Good news. With a higher HS drop out rate should mean a lower college drop out rate. Will Oklahoma lose it’s reputation “retention rates among lowest in the nation”?