Editorial: Even with cooked books CPS grad rate still on the rise

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Curie High School on the Southwest Side had an usually high number of students coded as being homeschooled, which removes those students from the school’s calculation of its graduation rate. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Reports Wednesday by WBEZ Radio and the Better Government Association poked holes in Chicago’s claim of dramatically rising high school graduation rates.

There are two important takeaways.

EDITORIAL

Some schools clearly fudged records, and have been for some time. Dropouts, according to the reports, are being mislabeled as having transferred out of the district, artificially inflating graduation rates. Transfers aren’t being factored into CPS graduation rates, while dropouts are.This deceptive practice must stop.

The BGA estimated that correct coding would reduce last year’s claimed five-year graduation rate of 69 percent to about 67 percent.

Nonetheless, the good news largely holds up. Despite the shenanigans, the number of students graduating each year really is on the rise, and significantly so. Despite declining or flat enrollment, 20,230 seniors graduated in 2014 compared to 15,230 in 2004, CPS records show. During that time, CPS’ graduation rate grew from 50 percent to 69 percent.

PASS/FAIL CPS miscoded dropouts, but won’t fix grad rate data

And it’s not just CPS saying so. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reports “significant improvements in Chicago graduation rates.”

“Even if you count all students who transfer as dropouts, and all students who go to alternative schools as dropouts, you still see double digit improvements in graduation rates,” Elaine Allensworth, the Consortium’s director, told us. She noted that coding errors go both ways — some students counted as dropouts legitimately transferred.

Chicago schools are graduating more students than ever, an accomplishment well worth celebrating.

But administrators undoubtedly are gaming the system, under pressure to boost attendance and graduation rates. WBEZ and the BGA found that at least 2,200 students from 25 high schools between 2011 and 2014 had been counted as transfers out that should have been coded as dropouts. They cited the example of Curie High School, where more than 100 students every year since 2011 supposedly transferred out to be homeschooled, and therefore were not counted in the school’s graduation rate.

“Students and teachers, however, scoffed at the idea that hundreds of high schoolers were being homeschooled on the Southwest Side of the city,” WBEZ wrote. One teacher said in her four years there she had never heard of a student being homeschooled.

CPS’ chief accountability officer acknowledged “some issues associated with our coding process” and said a system-wide audit of transfers and staff training are underway. But District officials said they weren’t going to adjust past graduation rates.

That’s a mistake. Graduation rates will be forever questioned unless this issue is rectified.

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