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CPS lowers graduation rate after errors found

The official graduation numbers that Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted throughout his first term and his re-election campaign were wrong.

Chicago Public Schools is revising its official graduation rate after WBEZ and the Better Government Association found thousands of dropouts were being misclassified as transfers.

The official graduation rate for 2014 was actually 66.3 percent, not 69.4 percent, officials said late Thursday. Every year dating back to 2011, the year Emanuel took office, was revised down two to three percentage points.

Earlier this year, records obtained by WBEZ and the Better Government Association under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act revealed that since 2011, at least 2,200 students across 25 district high schools were counted as having transferred out of the district, when in reality, they were dropouts.

At just those 25 CPS high schools, more than 1,000 of the dropouts were mislabeled as moving out of town or going to private schools, but were actually attending CPS alternative schools. More than 600 of the mislabeled dropouts were listed as getting a GED, when state law is clear that students who leave school to enroll in GED programs or attend alternative schools are dropouts.

One school, Curie Metropolitan High School, labeled more than 100 dropouts every year as leaving to be homeschooled. Another 1,300 of the so-called transfers had no explanation of what school they were supposedly transferring to or were vaguely listed as going to different states or countries.

When asked in June, district officials acknowledged problems with the system’s accounting, but said they had no plan to go back and adjust the numbers.

John Barker, the district’s chief of accountability, said all of those students, plus similar misclassifications at all of the district’s 100-plus high schools were put back into the calculation.

“So what you’re seeing is an adjusted rate that’s a little bit lower because you have more students in the denominator,” Barker said. To understand how CPS calculates its graduation rate, watch this animated video.  

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said the errors were concerning, but she’s still encouraged that the number of students graduating is increasing.

“The fact that more students have graduated did not change,” said Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. “Even with the adjusted rate, we have more students as far as the number.”

Jackson said some of recent gains are due to the aggressive expansion of for-profit alternative schools in the city, many which provide half day, mostly online programs that allow students to earn their high school diploma in a fraction of the time. She said the district won’t be opening any more of those schools because CPS is in a financial crunch, not because some existing operators have questionable business practices.

But the raw number of graduates from 2014 to 2015 increased by just 84 students, from 20,232 to 20,316, for a 2015 rate of 69.9 percent, according to district data provided late Thursday. Barker could not immediately say how many dropouts had to be reclassified in the new rate.

Source: Chicago Public Schools

Jackson acknowledged that principals and other staff could feel pressure to improve their school’s public reputation.   

“I don’t doubt that there are some principals who feel a great degree of pressure,” Jackson said, adding that she wants to provide more support instead of just layer on more accountability.

Barker said the district is still planning to train school clerks and has developed an internal system to flag misclassifications sooner.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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