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The Minnesota Department of Education on Thursday reported a slight slip in the state's graduation rates, but two districts — Minneapolis and St. Paul — said hundreds of summer graduates were missed in the data.

In the end, both districts still saw declines in their respective graduation rates. But the episode highlighted what some officials and advocates have been saying: Minnesota needs to get its student data in order.

At issue was a pool of students classified by the state as "unknown" — meaning it was unclear where they went after they left a district for another school or their files had been entered incorrectly.

This came into play on Thursday when the state deemed the absence of kids from school district records to be significant enough to lower the state's overall graduation rate.

"The small decrease in the total graduation rate is driven in part by a 0.4 percentage point increase in the 'unknown rate,'" Education Commissioner Willie Jett told reporters Thursday. "This reemphasizes the need for schools to keep track of and report every single student during their high school career."

The state's data indicated there were just over 3,000 "unknown" students last year, which was about 277 students higher than the year before. But Minneapolis and St. Paul told the Star Tribune that between the two districts there were 262 students misclassified as unknown due to reporting errors on their part.

Michael Diedrich, a policy specialist for the state Department of Education, said common ways for students to be classified as unknown are when they do not return to school after summer as planned, or leave midyear with the intention of going to another district but don't show up anywhere else in the state.

In some cases, he said, they may have moved to another state or country or switched to a private school or are being homeschooled. Without confirmation, they are classified as "unknown." That's different from students who are identified as dropouts because they made clear they are gone for good.

St. Paul Public Schools said Thursday that the percentage of its students whose enrollment was unknown rose from 7% in 2022 to 13% in 2023. It since has confirmed that 128 of those students, or 37%, went on to graduate during the summer of 2023, but were not part of the official graduation rate count.

Spokeswoman Erica Wacker said that the district had uploaded its summer graduation data, but that the numbers didn't make it to MDE due to a "technical error."

Also Thursday, Minneapolis Public Schools reported via email that 134 of its students who were coded by MDE as "unknown" also graduated during the summer.

"We will be changing our internal processes to prevent this from happening again," district spokeswoman Donnie Belcher said.

But while the two school systems stepped forward Thursday with new numbers, the state said there'd be no quick recalculations or revisions on its part.

"The Minnesota Department of Education reports data from school districts submitted by the annual deadline. That data includes summer school graduates, if reported," spokesman Kevin Burns said in a statement. "As corrected data about summer graduates or other cases of incorrect student records are submitted, the future five-, six- and seven-year rates will reflect the updated information."

The Star Tribune does not know if other school districts had similar reporting errors.

Difficulties tracking students

Challenges related to maintaining up-to-date student data have been cited, too, in the recent push at the State Capitol to resolve school attendance concerns in the post-pandemic era.

More than 30% of the state's students were chronically absent in 2021-22, meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year. That's double the chronic absenteeism rate pre-pandemic.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who has explored the issue with east metro school leaders, pointed earlier this year to difficulties tracking students who leave a district and never return to a school.

Efforts are underway to establish a legislative work group to tackle chronic student absenteeism, and its duties could include a review of the type of attendance data now available plus a look at "how truant students are tracked across county lines," the proposed legislation states.

"We think this is a good step because it will allow for a much deeper and comprehensive dive into the issue than what a regular legislative session can do," Matt Shaver,policy director for EdAllies, an advocacy group working closely with underserved communities, wrote in an email this week.

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.