How Careful Data Analysis, Shoe-Leather Reporting Exposed Inflated Graduation Rates


It began with a feel-good story: A struggling high school in Washington, D.C., had turned itself around and was sending all its seniors to college. When a reporter dug deeper, however, she discovered that many students should not have qualified to graduate—one in five had even missed more than half the school year.

Using data collected from attendance records, class rosters, and internal emails, combined with dogged shoe-leather journalism, reporter Kate McGee of WAMU unraveled the narrative of Ballou High as a success story. This enterprising journalism opened the door to a government investigation that has revealed a broader pattern of inflated graduation rates across the city’s public school system.

The issues raised—about credit recovery, chronic absenteeism, and the pressure to deliver high graduation rates—are playing out in communities across the country. What kind of data should education reporters look for when shedding light on local school districts? Where should they turn for help? What questions should they ask?

Kate McGee and her editor, Acacia Squires of NPR Education, share data-driven strategies to unpack graduation rates and answer viewer questions.