Minnesota says 4-year graduation rates slipped, but that’s not the case

Students on the move
Students moved through the front hallway on the first day of school at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington, Minn.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

Updated 1:25 p.m.

The Minnesota Department of Education in March reported four-year graduation rates were down in 2023, renewing concerns about the direction of the state’s public schools and the lingering effects of the pandemic.

But a deeper look at the data finds the state’s published results were flawed and that graduation rates are actually rising.

APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News with expertise in collecting and analyzing public data, examined the results. It found after incorporating misreported numbers from several school systems, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, two of the state’s largest districts, the state graduation rate rose slightly, from 83.6 in 2022 to 83.8 percent.

It’s a slight but important change at a time when school performance data is scrutinized intensely. From test scores to graduation rates, those numbers have an outsized influence on policy decisions and on public perceptions of school success and failure.

In this case, a widely reported decline should have been considered a small but hopeful rise emerging from years of school struggle in the pandemic, rather than a setback. The 2023 graduation rate should have been applauded as matching the historic high reached in 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

Here’s what happened.

‘Never issued a correction’

The Minnesota Department of Education reported the class of 2023 graduated at a rate of 83.3 percent, down slightly from 83.6 percent in 2022 and down from the high of 83.8 percent in 2020.

But when analysts at APM Research Lab took a closer look at the data, they found both Minneapolis and St. Paul — Minnesota’s fourth-largest and second-largest districts — had an “initial reporting error” in the graduation data they sent to the Education Department.

That error meant nearly 300 summer graduates from those two districts were not included in initial local or statewide graduation rate calculations.

That changed the performance numbers for some student populations significantly.

The graduation rate for Black students in Minneapolis leaped by nearly 10 percentage points after counting the summer graduates — from 504 grads to 575 grads, pushing the rate from the 60.4 percent reported in the state results to 69 percent.

Incorporating the missing summer graduates from Minneapolis and St. Paul boosted the statewide graduation rate for Black and Asian students by more than a percentage point statewide in 2023; English learner graduation rates rose by nearly 2 points above what was reported by the state.

Minneapolis and St. Paul released public corrections to their data, but the state Education Department did not recalculate a statewide rate, nor did it update the district-level data it makes available for download.

“In my time at MDE we have never issued a correction to the graduation rate data,” said Michael Diedrich, a policy specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education. 

“Opening the doors to going back to amend or correct would involve quite a bit of additional discussion around at what point is any data considered final,” he added. “We can talk through case by case as we go along with those individual individual districts in communities, but in terms of the statewide numbers, they are what they are.”

Diedrich described this year’s release of graduation rate data as unusually “weird.” There are often a small number of districts who reach out to his department for assistance with errors, but it’s unusual those errors would come from two of the state’s largest districts.

“You’re going to end up with particularly weird years for where this happens … so it’s kind of a year-to-year piece,” Diedrich said. “Then those districts get better about checking their unknowns and so it kind of evens out over time in terms of the statewide pieces. It’s more a matter of helping make sure that the local community knows what the real story is there.”

It’s not the first time questions have surfaced around the graduation counts.

In 2022, St. Cloud school district officials also noticed an error in their reported numbers. Incorporating their revised data into statewide numbers for 2022 increased the statewide graduation rate by just under one-tenth of a percent, according to the APM Research Lab analysis. 

Even with the higher 2022 graduation rate, the 2023 statewide rate still increased slightly over the 2022 rate. St. Cloud worked with the state to revise their data and improve their processes for 2023.

The state plans to add the updated data to next year’s five-year graduation rate, so those students who graduated in July or August instead of June last year will get counted. However, that won’t remedy the public perception that four-year grad rates are sliding.

Fact: Minnesota’s grad rate is relatively steady

Overall, with or without corrections, Minnesota’s graduation rate has hovered at a relatively stable spot for years. 

The state’s schools generally manage to shepherd just over 80 percent of its students to the graduation finish line. Even a pandemic that shuttered schools statewide only knocked that rate by half of a percentage point.

According to Diedrich, the graduation rate is something that “more so than almost any other measure we have, encapsulates the entirety of the student experience — both the academics piece and that kind of connectedness to school, some of that social-emotional piece, the mental health pieces, all of that goes together into one number.”

When Diedrich looks statewide at what has happened in Minnesota schools the last several years, he sees that the pandemic had a major impact.

But to him, some of the larger stories emerge when looking at data centered on individual groups of students and areas where certain schools have made a concerted, focused effort to improve things for particular groups.

“I don’t find it super surprising that things stay fairly stable on the big picture,” he said.

For this story, APM Research Lab incorporated updated numbers for 2022 and 2023 from three districts — Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Cloud — that released statements with updated data.

MPR News also reached out to a few districts that had particularly high numbers of students with unknown numbers in 2023. One was MACCRAY district in Chippewa County, which recorded 46 of the 47 members of the senior class as having unknown status.

On Monday, MACCRAY told MPR News its corrected graduation rate was 98 percent for 2023. When that district’s counts are added to the statewide total, Minnesota's four-year graduation rate rises to 83.8 percent, equaling the record set near the pandemic’s onset.

The state last month acknowledged that the 2023 data saw an increase in the “unknown rate” — students who were either incorrectly reported or not reported as enrolled elsewhere.

"The updated numbers are still not necessarily a perfect representation of graduation rates, since we are not confirming with every district that their data is accurate," said Elisabeth Gawthrop, a data journalist with APM Research Lab.

"The analysis in this story does, however, bring the remaining unknowns down below the level from 2022,” Gawthrop said, “and it demonstrates that slight changes in the statewide numbers can be significantly influenced by missing data from the districts."

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