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.”