West Ashley High School had 352 students earn a diploma last school year, but the state says nearly three times as many students should have graduated in that class.
Some of the 1,050 students cited by the state never even set foot in West Ashley High while others transferred to different high schools. And it's up to the school to prove what happened to them, or else they will count against its graduation rate.
"You're considered guilty until you prove yourself innocent," said Mary Runyon, the school's principal. "It's crazy."
South Carolina high school educators are fed up with the way the state calculates high schools' graduation rates. They say they support high standards and accountability but that the state's methods penalize schools and artificially deflate those rates. High schools' graduation rates are a key indicator of success, and they make up one-third of schools' report card ratings.
State officials disagree, saying they aren't requiring anything more than what the federal government mandates.
No one is happy, including state leaders, about having to keep up with so much documentation, but that's a federal dictate, said Gary West, chief information officer for the state education department who oversees verification and calculation process.
"What we've been doing for the last two years is helping schools come up with strategies to make sure that they come up with the right documentation," he said. "We've made changes based on what schools have asked us over a period of time, but we think we are interpreting the federal guidelines appropriately."
Frustrations have escalated so much locally that two Charleston associate superintendents, accompanied by the district's entire staff of high school principals, showed up at the Tri-County Legislative Delegation meeting on Nov. 29 to voice their concerns.
Although the issue is one of policy rather than law, Charleston school leaders said they thought asking local lawmakers to get involved might result in much-needed changes. They've made repeated requests to the state department and gotten nowhere, said Lou Martin, the district's associate superintendent for high schools.
"The department that manages this is unresponsive to principals and has been so for years," he said. "It's been consistently problematic."
Charleston educators told lawmakers they would return with a plan for proposed changes, and lawmakers said they would look into the problem.
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said he had heard about the problem before from Runyon, but it was the group of principals coming en masse that really got his and other lawmakers' attention.
Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, called the state's methods unreasonable and ridiculous. The state Department of Education hasn't been listening to school leaders, he said, and "some bureaucrat is ignoring all the principals in the state." Rose said he would decide on the appropriate course of action after he gathered more information.
School officials say the state has a narrow interpretation of the documentation schools can submit to prove that a student withdrew and that tracking down the paperwork has become a time-intensive burden on employees who could be spending their time helping students. It's a massive undertaking for any school but particularly for big schools, and any issue with the documentation becomes magnified in smaller schools, Martin said.
"We have to go through hoops and hoops and hoops before they will accept appropriate documentation," he said.
West said schools can provide any piece of documentation to account for how students have transferred, and he said the state was following the federal government's guidance. If a superintendent can get 25 principals together in the same room, he said he'd spend the day answering any questions they have.
The only area where West thought schools had a different interpretation from the state department involved ninth-graders. The state automatically has included students from high schools' feeder middle schools as part of their graduating class, regardless of whether the student enrolled in the high school. The state has asked the federal government for permission to change that interpretation to where it only would have to track students who enrolled in high school on the first day, he said.
Another area of concern for local high schools is the way the state views special-needs students. Federal law allows special needs students with extensive cognitive and physical challenges who aren't working toward a diploma to remain in high school until they are 21, but the state counts those students against schools' graduation rates each year they remain after their fourth year.
"It's inhumane about what is done to the special education population," Martin said.
West said that rule comes straight from the federal government, and that's not an interpretation of the regulation.
A Lowcountry issue
Charleston isn't the only district struggling with this issue. In Berkeley County, school Superintendent Anthony Parker said there's been a lot of frustration. He questioned whether the state was really looking for the graduation rate or instead evaluating school districts on how well they document a paper trail.
And Dorchester 2 Superintendent Joe Pye thinks his high schools would have graduation rates about 10 percentage points higher if it weren't for the documentation problems. The state needs to start from the beginning and develop a new system for documenting student enrollment and departures, he said.
"There are 400 patches on the tire," he said. "I can't even figure out where the hole is anymore."
At West Ashley High, Runyon said the documentation difficulties have caused the school's graduation rate to be 10 to 12 percentage points lower than it actually is. She, an assistant principal, guidance director, registrar, secretary and data clerk work year round compiling 6- to 8-inch notebooks filled with paperwork, and it's enough work to be more than a full-time job, she said.
"If we took this case to court and tried it, we'd win it," she said. "But you know we're not trying it in court. … We're not asking the state department to break the law, we're asking them to be reasonable in their interpretation and that's where we can't get to first base."