Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been talking proudly about something that is really a bit of a miracle: Even during a time of tight budgets and leadership chaos, Chicago Public Schools graduation rates have climbed to a record 69.4 percent.
But new data obtained by WBEZ and the Better Government Association shows that number is wrong.
CPS records recently obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show at least 2,200 students from 25 Chicago high schools were counted as having transferred out of the district between 2011 and 2014. In reality, they were dropouts. The transfers aren’t factored into CPS graduation rates, while dropouts are.
More than half of the 2,200 labeled as moving out of town or going to private schools actually went to alternative schools. Those students should stay in the graduation rate.
Another 610 of the so-called transfers were listed as getting a GED. State law and policy dictate that students who leave districts to go to GED programs are dropouts.
An additional 1,300 had no explanation of what school they were supposedly transferring to or were vaguely listed as going to different states or countries.
Asked about all this by WBEZ and the BGA, district officials acknowledged problems with the system’s accounting, but said they had no plan to go back and adjust the numbers. They insisted the numbers weren’t purposely skewed to help Emanuel look better to potential voters.
“The mayor is absolutely interested in making sure we have accurate data,” said John Barker, CPS’ chief accountability officer.
Emanuel released a statement late Tuesday that said in part: “No one questions the facts: more CPS students are graduating than ever before, those students are more prepared for their futures and we’re making huge strides in helping struggling kids graduate."
It is unclear when the practice started, but the CPS inspector general found problems at one school, Farragut Career Academy, dating back to 2009. School district officials said they did not know how widespread the problem was until contacted by reporters.
Barker said now the district is doing a systemwide audit of what are called verified transfers. He also said school staff has been trained on how to enter information into the system, but as of Tuesday, CPS officials could provide no evidence of such trainings or audits.
WBEZ and the BGA attempted to contact several of the principals of the schools whose data we looked at. We tried to reach them through phone calls, e-mails and stops by the schools, but each declined our request for interviews on the subject. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey also refused to make any principals available to talk about this story.
It's not just about graduation rates, said Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connection Charter School, a network of more than 20 alternative schools in CPS.
“We have to get a better handle on (the dropout problem),” Venson said. “You can’t get a better handle on it if you’re hiding it. If you’re not looking at it, you’re not even looking at who these kids are.”
Once a student is classified as a transfer, school staff have no reason to try to re-enroll him or her in school or to hand their information to a district re-enrollment center. But Venson points out that schools have no incentive to be honest about the numbers because they are under so much pressure to improve their performance on school rating systems that take into account the graduation rate.
McCaffrey acknowledged that the district has a problem, but said officials don't plan to go back and adjust the rates because of the “billion dollar deficit.”
Obvious red flags and past problems
For decades, CPS has used a number system to identify where and when students are enrolled. The information is used to determine school funding, and also to track students from grade school to graduation.
In examining high school records, WBEZ and the BGA found a number of red flags.
At Curie Metropolitan High School, the third largest high school in the city, more than 100 students every year since 2011 supposedly transferred out to be homeschooled. Homeschooled students are removed from the graduation rate. But annually, most high schools only listed a handful of students as being homeschooled.
Curie Principal Phillip Perry did not respond to phone calls or emails. When reporters stopped by his school, they were not allowed past the front foyer and escorted out by a security guard and a woman who identified herself as a police officer, though she did not have her badge evident and was not in uniform.
Students and teachers, however, scoffed at the idea that hundreds of high schoolers were being homeschooled on the Southwest Side of the city.
Teacher Marina Kalic said that in her four years at the school she has never once heard of a student leaving to be homeschooled. She points out that most students at the school are low-income.
“Parents don’t have the sources and the funds to homeschool their kids,” she says. “They have to go to work. I’ve never heard that.”
CPS' John Barker said that having so many students labeled as homeschooled raises questions.
“Is that a concern to us? Yes,” he said. “Are we interested in following up? Yes. What we are going to need to do is that we are going to intervene as far as take a look at these a lot more seriously.”
Despite having access to this information for years, district officials said they only just became aware of the misclassifications when CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler started looking into it last year at a particular school. In the annual report released in January, in a section entitled “High School Dropouts Masked as “Transfers,” Schuler found that an unnamed high school “systemically and improperly” recorded nearly 300 students over five year as transfers, although internal records show they went to GED programs. That school was later identified as Farragut.
“Illinois law and policy, however, make it clear that students who leave school to attend a GED program are dropouts and not transfers,” Schuler wrote.
Another 123 students at this school were labeled as verified transfers, many of them labeled as transferred to Mexico, but student records show the transfer was verified in less than 5 percent of the cases.
Schuler then took CPS to task for not disciplining the five employees involved and promoting one of them.
‘One of the most complicated, debated and discussed statistics’
The concept of a graduation rate seems pretty simple, but in reality, it is complicated. The state and federal government calculate their rates differently, though based on the same premise as CPS.
Barker pointed out that it gets even more complicated in a system of choice like Chicago’s. A WBEZ analysis of CPS data shows that in the Class of 2013, about 16,000 of the districts more than 20,000 graduates started and finished in the same place. More than 4,000 switched schools and still graduated, while more than 12,000 dropped out, died, or were labeled “out-of-district transfers.”
“The graduation rate is one of the most complicated, debated and discussed statistics in all of K-12 education,” Barker said. “Go in for four years, get out with a diploma, doesn’t take into account all of the complicated factors of student mobility in a district like ours.”
In Illinois, the issue became even more complex when state lawmakers changed the compulsory age from 16 to 17 in 2004. The idea was that schools would have to hang onto students for longer.
Some time around then, the CPS system changed so that students were no longer labeled in the computer system as dropouts. Instead, they are supposed to be labeled as “unable to locate” or “consent to withdraw.”
Venson said this creates all sorts of confusion: “What’s a dropout? Is it a chronic truant? Is it someone with 20 or more absences? 30 or 40 more absences? Is that a dropout? Is a dropout somebody who formally withdraws?”
When WBEZ and the BGA asked about the questionable practices around the graduation rate, McCaffrey and Barker continued to point to the future. They said this year, CPS is going to completely redo the way it calculates graduation rates. As of Tuesday, they had not yet provided any details about the new formula. But McCaffrey says district officials are confident that it will result in an even higher graduation rate than in the past.
Barker said the district may also reformat the computer system to prevent clerks from entering in transfer codes unless they have documentation.
This is not the first time Emanuel’s administration has come under fire for doctoring figures. Chicago Magazine found that dozens of crimes were misclassified or made to vanish altogether.
Larry Lesser, an associate professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Texas-El Paso, noted that statistics can easily be manipulated to say what people want. In cases where the underlying information is wrong, the agency needs to make sure that people understand how they should report things, mathematicians need to be on review committees and standards need to be enforced.
“Ultimately,” he said, “ it becomes a question of politics.”