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CPS acknowledges errors, takes steps to count dropouts correctly

Chicago school officials are taking steps to make sure dropouts aren’t being mislabeled to make the city’s graduation rates look better.

The action comes after WBEZ and the Better Government Association reported widespread problems in how student were being classified when they left high school. Thousands were labeled as leaving the city, but then supposedly enrolled in GED programs. State law and policy dictate that students who leave districts to go to GED programs are dropouts.

“CPS is committed to ensuring the accuracy of our data, and we are taking four additional concrete steps to further guarantee the integrity of our data,” Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz said in an email sent late Wednesday.

Related: Emanuel touts bogus graduation rates

Those steps are: doing random spot checks of all school transfer data; making principals sign a document taking full responsibility for making sure transfers are, in fact, real transfers; requiring school staff to attend trainings, and referring any questionable activity to the law department and the district’s inspector general.

Chicago Public Schools Inspector General Nicholas Schuler first looked into the problem and reported wrongdoing in January.

“Two high schools had been improperly coding students as transfers to GED programs,” he said.  

Schuler also found large groups of students were listed as “transferred to Mexico,” but records didn’t include the name or address of any school.

On Wednesday, Schuler said his office plans to investigate the problem across all 140 high schools.

“We’re going to hopefully determine the extent of the problem and find out just where responsibility lies for those problems,” he said. “We’re sort of hamstrung to some degree by the size of our office, but that doesn’t mean we won’t do it. It just might take a little longer than it would if we had more people.”

Schuler’s office gets hundreds of thousands of reports of fraud every year. He couldn’t say exactly how many dealt with bad data.

The WBEZ and Better Government Association looked at only 25 of 140 high schools -- the ones with the largest numbers of students removed from the graduation rate calculation. A request is pending for the remaining 115.   

The errors at that small sampling of schools would lower the publicly reported graduation rate from 69.4 percent to about 67 percent. It is a conservative estimate and would likely be lowered further when all schools are factored in.

Despite the errors in the underlying data, CPS Chief of Accountability John Barker insists the graduation rate is even higher than it’s been reported and will continue to be.

Elaine Allensworth, executive director of University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research said, “There’s always doubt about what the exact number is, but that doesn’t mean the trends in graduation rates aren’t real.”

Still, district officials and researchers don’t dispute the fact the data is riddled with errors.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation. Sarah Karp is a reporter for the Better Government Association. Follow her at @SSKedreporter.

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