RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)—Data examined by CBS 6 shows that in 2012 Richmond Public Schools had the worst graduation rate in the state, and it could be lower than recorded.
The city school system had the worst on-time graduation rate in the state in 2012, finishing last out of 131 school divisions.
Education expert Bill Bosher calls it unacceptable. "The number becomes more staggering, less defensible and perhaps more immoral," he said.
Other neighboring school districts like Henrico saw 90 percent of students graduate on time in 2012, and Chesterfield County has an 89 percent rate.
Petersburg and Norfolk, which have been heavily scrutinized by the state, had graduation rates of 77 percent.
But in Richmond, only 73 percent received a diploma on time last year, according to a Virginia Department of Education report.
"It’s a victory for 73 percent but for the other 27 percent it's a failure,” said Bosher.
When CBS 6 examined Richmond’s data more closely, it wasn`t just the outlying low number that caught our attention, but a higher one; one that former Richmond City Councilman Marty Jewell called “a red flag.”
It was the number of students that Richmond categorized under the heading 'long term absences.’ In this category there were 113 students.
We showed that number to newly elected RPS school board member Glen Sturtevant.
"I think you have to question whether the numbers being reported as long term absences are truly long term absences," said Sturtevant.
There`s reason to question the high number, because the vast majority of school districts in Virginia report zero students in this category.The second highest reported district for long term absences was Spotsylvania with 45 students; Richmond’s 113 reported students was by far the most statewide.
"I need to see the math that's been done and I need to see the underlying data,” said Sturtevant.
[BONUS SPREADSHEET USED IN INVESTIGATION: Virginia School District Graduation Data]
CBS 6 asked more about the math behind the classification of 113 students as long-term absences.
RPS reports a few students had a long term illness, or were suspended or expelled.
The school said that 110 were categorized as absent more than 15 consecutive days but expected to return to school.
Bosher said the practice is suspicious, because by law when a student misses more than fifteen days, they are immediately withdrawn from the school system. "Could students be in that category, when they should be in other categories like dropouts?” he asked.
Education records kept with the state indicate that Richmond has kept students on the long term absent list for several years at a time. This means there are some students who have not set foot in a Richmond classroom in years but are not recorded as dropouts.
"That dropout rate would be worse if numbers in ‘long term absences’ are also dropouts, “said Bosher.
This could mean that the already lowest on-time graduation rate in the state is even lower. Is Richmond`s drop-out rate even worse than what's being reported? These are questions that will now be raised to RPS administrators.
"I'm not confident that the numbers that have been reported are in fact accurate,” said Sturtevant.
The numbers show 174 dropouts in the class of 2012, over the course of four years; each four year class considered a cohort for reporting purposes.
'It`s insane, it`s insane,” said former councilman Marty Jewell. “We can do better, we ought to do better.”
“We ought to demand better,” he added.
Those are strong words from a long time education watchdog. Jewell claims Richmond Public Schools need to 'do better' at getting diplomas in the hands of high schoolers - and doing within four years.
Jewell said that based on these stats, that number in reality should be much higher (or a lower percentage of graduates).
“It`s trying to mask the mess, well you can`t mask the mess anymore,” said Jewell.
***The date used in this story can be found by clicking on this spreadsheet: Virginia School District Graduation Data