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Troubled Chicago Schools Downgrade 4 Years of Inflated Graduation Rates

Chicago Public Schools lowered four years of inflated high school graduation rates to account for a higher-than-advertised dropout rate, another blow to a district beset by financial and professional turmoil.

By Juan Perez Jr.

Chicago Public Schools lowered four years of inflated high school graduation rates to account for a higher-than-advertised dropout rate, another blow to a district beset by financial and professional turmoil.

The accuracy of the district's numbers had been called into question as early as January in a report by CPS' inspector general. But CPS officials did not announce the revised graduation rates until Thursday, months after Mayor Rahm Emanuel won re-election.

Throughout the campaign, Emanuel repeatedly pointed to the district's improving graduation rates as proof that his often-controversial stewardship of one of the nation's largest public school systems was producing tangible results.

"This wasn't a one-year fluke, a statistical error," Emanuel said during an August 2014 breakfast with faith leaders. "This is a journey not to a single destination, though we do have a goal: a hundred percent college-ready, a hundred percent college-bound, no child left behind."

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said Thursday that the district made a "statistical error" and that a "relatively minor modification" was needed to recalculate graduation rates.

"The graduation rate has been consistently rising," Claypool said. "This statistical error obviously reduces the rapidity of that rise, but the trend line is exactly the same.

"It's important that there be an accurate graduation rate. My understanding is the district failed to correctly track certain students, and that has the effect of altering the statistics. It's still a minor modification, and it doesn't take away from the fact that graduation rates have been consistently rising."

CPS said that it would no longer allow schools to count students who leave school for a GED program, alternative schools outside of the system or job training programs as "transfers." Those students are now categorized as dropouts.

Students who transfer to privately operated "alternative schools" within the CPS system still won't count as dropouts -- and the district will continue its practice of crediting a student's graduation from an alternative program back to the school they originally left.

The changes mean the 69.4 percent five-year graduation rate originally reported by CPS for the 2013-14 school year, often touted by Emanuel as a record high, dropped to 66.3 percent. The new formula drops graduation rates between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years an average of more than 2 percentage points.

The revised statistics could generate new questions about the quality of data churned out by the school system. The policy shift also presents a new challenge for the latest schools administration, which was appointed after former chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned amid a federal probe and has started a school year with a budget relying on $480 million from a deadlocked state Capitol.

The inspector general's 2014 review determined one high school "systematically and improperly" recorded 296 students who left school to pursue a GED program as "transfers" outside of CPS since 2009, in an apparent effort to reduce the school's reported dropout rate.

School workers frequently counseled students with chronic attendance problems to leave school for GED programs, the inspector general said, a practice the office described as an apparent tool to remove students with attendance problems while underreporting the true dropout rate.

Many students were recorded as transfers with very little documentation to support the claim, the report said, including a large group of students who transferred to schools in Mexico, according to the high school, despite little effort to substantiate that assertion.

In June, WBEZ-FM and the Better Government Association reported that a review of data from 25 high schools raised more questions about the district's accounting of graduation rates.

"Coming out with the new rate now, and the comparison, we believe is clarity that will help not only parents but the community and also students understand that they're in a district where 70 percent of the kids are graduating within five years," said John Barker, the district's chief accountability officer, referring to the 69.9 percent rate CPS calculates for the 2014-15 school year.

During his campaign, Emanuel often said what he characterized as his politically tough decisions -- pushing for a longer school day, expanding kindergarten and closing schools -- paid dividends in the form of improved education performance. And there's no statistic he cited more than the city's graduation rate.

While Emanuel frequently mentions the projection that 80 percent of high school freshmen are on track to graduate, the graduation rate he pointed to during the campaign hovered at 69 percent, which Emanuel claimed was up from 58 percent when he took office, according to CPS numbers at the time.

The district's new calculations also led to an adjustment of freshmen on-track numbers, which dipped between 2010-11 and 2013-14 based on the new methodology.

According to the district, the graduation rate has risen for much of the last decade with the exception of one year, 2008, when numbers slipped slightly. The improvement falls in line with an increase generally seen across the country.

"Graduation rates at Chicago Public Schools are at an all-time high, and have been trending upwards for the last four years," Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement issued late Thursday. "What is perfectly clear is that our students, teachers, and principals are moving in the right direction."

An April 2014 report from the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education's research branch, found that the four-year graduation rate in the United States rose during the 2011-12 school year to a historical high of 80 percent, up from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year.

The admission by CPS that the numbers Emanuel frequently has lauded were inflated could hamper the mayor's messaging on the topic in the future, and it's unclear what impact the changes in calculations may have on one of Emanuel's top campaign goals -- to graduate 85 percent of CPS students by 2019.

The adjustment of graduation rates comes amid a growing reliance on data used by schools to illustrate strengths, weaknesses and improvements. That has opened the door to fuzzy data, a problem the district's inspector general has cited as a troubling development in recent years.

On Thursday, district officials sought to downplay the issue.

"We're not saying that the distinction between the former methodology and the new approach is significant," said Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. "I mean, obviously it's an adjustment, but what really is important is that there's been tremendous growth over time."

Chicago Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart contributed.

(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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