Six months ago, Dec. 8 to be exact, superintendent Mike Sentance gravely told a work session of the state school board, “This is the hard part.” He then painted a picture of doom and gloom about how the U.S. Department of Education was conducting an investigation of Alabama high school graduation rates and that “incorrect graduation rates were reported to the people of the state.”
Reaction from the board was swift. They were “duped” and “blindsided.” Trust was “betrayed” and one member choked back tears saying she “could not speak” and that the board’s credibility was on the line.
Media reaction was equally predictable. A Huntsville TV station said, “Alabama provided false graduation rates to federal government, school systems, parents & students.” AL.com shouted, “Alabama graduation rate inflated, diplomas awarded that were ‘not honestly earned.'”
The state department of education put out an official statement saying, “In some cases, local school systems misstated student records and awarded class credit, resulting in diplomas that were not honestly earned.”
So we all settled back waiting for the Office of Inspector General’s report to come out of Washington declaring Armageddon for our schools.
That report showed up this week. But I am unaware of Mike Sentance saying anything about it. Nor can I find an official statement from ALSDE or any headlines telling us the sky is falling. I’ve not heard any state board members recanting their expressions of alarm made on Dec. 8.
In fact, I read every word in the 35-page report and can’t find any reference to a scandal, to massive cheating on grad rates, to people speaking with forked tongues, etc.
The vocal point of this rhubarb is that former state superintendent Tommy Bice felt strongly that if students with disabilities completed all the coursework they were assigned, they should be considered a graduate. These students got the Alabama Occupational Diploma (AOD).
The Feds say students with such diplomas should not be considered as a high school graduate. Bice felt differently and was very open with Washington about his position. And in Finding No. 2 in the lengthy report the folks at OIG say that Alabama misreported the data to USDOE.
That’s about the gist of the entire 35-page report. Alabama told the Feds what we were going to do and we did it. There were no secrets. The Feds disagreed with the state’s position, a new state superintendent was hired and suddenly the sky was about to fall. (It should be noted that among the many differences in our current superintendent and the former one is that the new one spent more than seven years working for USDOE.)
In his rush to make Alabama look bad, Sentance talked to Governor Bentley and Rep. Terri Collins before he talked to the board last December. He told them the Mobile County school system was being investigated. Collins then passed this info on to a reporter. Martha Peek, Mobile superintendent, learned of this from an article on the internet.
She was not happy and immediately let the powers-that-be in Montgomery how she felt. Shortly thereafter ALSDE put out a statement trying to defuse the Mobile situation. But as we know, retractions seldom carry the weight of initial headlines.
And what was Mobile’s great sin? A team of accountants from Washington found three errors in the records of 3,200 students.
Editor’s note: As I watched the 35 minutes devoted to this graduation rate discussion on the video linked above, it was impossible to not be aware of the irony of what was said six months ago and what has transpired since. For instance, Mike Sentance talked about how the people of Alabama need confidence in the state department of education, yet under his leadership confidence is probably at its lowest point ever. And a board member who spoke of credibility being “on the line” is now part of a legal action questioning her own credibility.