February 16, 2016

State Continues to Withhold Many Graduation Numbers

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A rule used by the state Department of Education to withhold selected information for most of Oklahoma’s public school districts remains in place five months after it was repealed.

The department said the so-called “Rule of 10” remains in effect because the state included the provision in a federal education waiver. The rule, which was repealed by the state Board of Education in August, had ordered the redaction of all publicly released data involving fewer than 10 students; the intention of the rule was to protect student privacy.

Recently, the Education Department responded to a request from Oklahoma Watch for the graduation rates and numbers and class sizes for all school districts in the state. As it had before, the department withheld release of numbers that were fewer than 10.

The issue came to light last year when Oklahoma Watch requested the graduation DATA, and the Education Department refused to release the rates and numbers for 58 percent of the districts, mostly small, rural ones. It said under the rule, releasing both percentages and numbers could compromise student privacy.

Oklahoma Watch published a story in which lawmakers and open-government advocates said the department was misinterpreting a state law written to prohibit releases of confidential information such as giving Social Security numbers to test vendors.

The State Board of Education took up the matter in August and voted 6-0 to repeal the Rule of 10. At the meeting, Education Department officials said releasing the graduation data would not jeopardize student privacy.

Oklahoma Watch submitted a new request for the data, including graduation percentages and numbers as well as class sizes, or the four-year cohort of students tracked. The department provided graduation rates but did not release numbers that are fewer than 10.

A memo from the Education Department’s attorney said the state must abide by the rule as long as it remains in the federal waiver. The provision was included as a way for the state to guarantee compliance with federal student privacy laws.

A new law that succeeds NCLB – the Every Student Succeeds Act – will take effect by the end of the year. That will nullify the need for waivers. Oklahoma’s waiver remains in place until Aug. 1.

Joey Senat, who teaches media law at Oklahoma State University, criticized the agreement with the federal government, saying it circumvents state transparency laws and cedes local control, especially since much of the information is available from the federal government.

“They are trying to find any loophole they can to avoid it,” Senate said. “That’s the impression the public is going to have.”

Oklahoma Watch obtained some cohort numbers from the U.S. Department of Education and included data from the state Department of Education in a new table showing graduation rates.