CPS miscoded dropouts as transfers but won’t fix wrong graduation rates

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Chicago Public Schools admits that it mischaracterized some of its students who dropped out as “transfers,” thereby inflating its 2014 graduation rates, but the district refuses to consider changing those graduation numbers.

At least 2,200 students from 25 district-run schools were coded as transfers out of the district between 2011 and 2014 — and therefore not factored into CPS graduation rates, according to a joint report released Wednesday by WBEZ and the Better Government Association. Some 610 were listed as getting a GED — meaning, according to state law, they should have been counted as dropouts against the district’s graduation rate. CPS couldn’t say exactly where 1,300 of those students were transferring.

That means CPS’ 2014 graduation rate was 67 percent, not 69.4 percent as Mayor Rahm Emanuel often touts, the report said.

District spokesman Bill McCaffrey said that CPS has no plans to go back and recalculate the 2014 graduation rate accounting for added dropouts. Nor did he refute any of the numbers. Asked whether any of the students were miscoded on purpose for political purposes, he said, “Absolutely not.”

McCaffrey said the district became aware of the problem when CPS’ inspector general began investigating similar patterns at a few CPS schools. The IG reported that at one school, now known to be Farragut Career Academy High School, “the miscoding of purported GED dropouts as ‘transfers’ appears to have been done to reduce the high school’s reported dropout rate,” that would have negatively affected its official school rating.

But McCaffrey declined to make any of the 25 principals whose schools were examined by the two media outlets available for an interview, instead proffering leaders from other schools, and a statement from interim CEO Jesse Ruiz:

“CPS takes any report of miscoding very seriously, and has already instituted additional rigorous safeguards and training to ensure the quality of its records,” Ruiz said.

All clerks will have to attend district-led training sessions on how to properly code transfer students and will make principals sign a document this summer taking responsibility for their school’s student transfer process, according to CPS. Spot-checks at schools are ongoing, as is an internal review, and questionable activity will be referred to the inspector general’s office.

“The University of Chicago not only agrees that CPS’ graduation numbers are on the rise and that progress is being made. More students are graduating than ever before, and are prepared for college, careers, and life,” mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement.

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has studied graduation rates in detail, stood by its own independent findings of “significant improvements in Chicago graduation rates,” said Consortium spokeswoman Emily Krone. But she did not dispute the miscoded students.

“That upward trend cannot be explained away by accounting errors at the school or district level,” she said. “In fact, UChicago CCSR research finds double-digit improvements in graduation rates over the last several years, even using a very conservative method of calculation” that counts every students who transfers or goes to an alternative school as a dropout.

But Emanuel and the CPS officials he appointed have a history of making bold claims that either can’t be verified or turn out to be exaggerated to make them look better. And the 2.4 percentage points might seem small, but Emanuel mentioned rising graduation rates in virtually every speech he gave on education during a hard-fought mayoral campaign dominated by education issues and his controversial decision to close a record 50 public schools.

And the ambitious education agenda he unveiled promised an 85 percent graduation rate by 2019.

Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett insisted that “Seven. Only seven” CPS students were lost in the massive 2013 school closings — but further reporting revealed the actual number of missing children topped 100. CPS also blamed that on a data searching error.

The district also overestimated savings from controversial janitorial services with Aramark, partly by forgetting to count 22 entire schools — at a cost of $7 million more.

The mayor’s promise to save $60 million by switching garbage collection from a ward-by-ward to a grid system fell $42 million short.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has also accused the mayor’s Department of Transportation of failing to meet its self-imposed deadlines for pothole and streetlight repairs and exaggerating its performance by failing to report 53 percent of all requests for those pivotal city services.

“Inaccurate or incomplete reporting of performance data as found here may undermine the very public confidence and trust that transparency mechanisms intend to foster,” Ferguson wrote in that 2014 audit.

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