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Admitting Dropouts Were Miscounted, Chicago Lowers Graduation Rates

Chicago Public Schools has lowered its official high school graduation rate following revelations that thousands of dropouts were being misclassified as transfers.

The official rate for 2014 was actually 66.3 percent, not 69.4 percent, officials said late Thursday. CPS also revised down the graduation rates for each year dating back to 2011.

Chicago's high school graduation rate before and after this week's downward revision.
/ Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
Chicago's high school graduation rate before and after this week's downward revision.

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 had been counted as having transferred out of the district when, in reality, they should have been considered dropouts.

The investigation was featured by NPR Ed as part of the team's Graduation Rates project, which highlighted different ways districts and states were responding to pressure to raise their graduation rates, including some questionable quick fixes.

The earlier, higher figures for Chicago were a feature of the city's mayoral election, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel touting the rate as an achievement of his administration.

At just 25 CPS high schools, more than 1,000 students were mislabeled as moving out of town or going to private schools. But they had actually dropped out and were attending CPS alternative schools, the investigation found. More than 600 were listed as getting a GED. State law is clear that students who leave school to enroll in GED programs or attend alternative schools should be classified as dropouts.

One of the schools, Curie Metropolitan High School, labeled more than 100 dropouts every year as leaving to be home-schooled. For another 1,300 of the students classified as transfers, school officials had no explanation of what school they were supposedly transferring to or had listed them as going to different states or countries.

When asked in June, district officials acknowledged problemswith the system's accounting but said they had no plans to go back and adjust the numbers.

Announcing the new changes, 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.

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said the errors were concerning, but she's still encouraged that the trend is upward.

"The fact that more students have graduated did not change," Jackson said. "Even with the adjusted rate, we have more students as far as the number."

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

Jackson said some of the recent gains are due to the aggressive expansion of for-profit alternative schools in the city, many of which provide half-day, mostly online programs that allow students to earn a diploma much more quickly than a traditional high school. 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 been accused of questionable business practices.

Jackson acknowledged that principals and other staff could have felt pressure to improve their schools' public reputation.

"I don't doubt that there are some principals who feel a great degree of pressure," Jackson said. "We have to make sure that accountability comes with support.​"

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

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

Copyright 2015 WBEZ