No matter how you count it, the one-year dropout rate for the Chicago Public Schools declined in 1999. The two calculations made by the state—one for regular high schools and one for all high schools in the system—show declines. And a new calculation by CPS shows a steady decline since 1997. CPS began investigating a new way to calculate its dropout rate following a Catalyst report last June on a 1998 increase in the all-school dropout rate calculated by the state. CPS maintains that rate was misleading.

Until now, both the state and CPS rates measured dropouts as a percentage of enrollment at a set point in time, September 30. When applied to individual schools, this method resulted in dropout rates exceeding 100 percent for some schools serving at-risk youth, which often see students arrive later in the year. It also inflated the citywide rate because students who enrolled after September 30 and then dropped out would be counted as a dropouts but would not be included in the enrollment pool.

The new CPS rate measures dropouts as a percentage of all students who enroll in high school during a given year, regardless of the date they enroll.

When discussing dropouts publicly, CPS previously relied on the state-calculated rate that is published in state school report cards; this rate includes only regular high schools. In contrast, the new CPS rate encompasses all high schools except those serving Cook County Jail and the juvenile detention center. It also includes students in transition centers and in elementary schools that have added high school grades, like Chavez Elementary.

CPS consulted with John Easton of the Consortium on Chicago School Research while developing the new rate. He describes the changes as “very reasonable.”

In deciding whether to put schools on probation or take them off, the Office of Accountability will use a modified rate that eliminates one disincentive for schools to re-enroll students who dropped during the previous two years. If a dropout re-enrolls and drops out again, he or she will not be counted as a dropout the second time.

“It’s providing an incentive for schools to hold on to their kids,” says dropout expert G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University. “Anything that makes it easier for schools to hold on to kids is a plus, and this works that way.”

The new CPS rate shows an increase in dropouts from 1996 to 1997 and then declines, which Hess believes more accurately reflects what happened. “We had a bump when they first started getting rigorous about student enrollment [in 1997], and now it’s getting back down to where it had been,” he observes.

CPS now says the state’s all-school rate spiked in 1998 because, for the first time, Chicago gave the state data on several of its alternative schools for disruptive youth.

Any dropout rate is only as good as the data that schools report to central office. For example, last September Catalyst reported on Kelly High’s questionable combination of astonishingly low annual dropout rates and skyrocketing transfer rates. Subsequently, CPS created a committee of principals and central office staff to revise its system for coding students who dropout or transfer. The new coding system is expected to be ready this summer.

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