Chicago’s dismal dropout rate has garnered plenty of attention in recent months, but a new report contends that other districts across the country also consistently underreport the number of dropouts and overestimate graduation rates.

State graduation rates also mask significant racial gaps in who earns a diploma, warns the report from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. Other partners in the project include the Urban Institute, Advocates for Children of New York and the Civil Society Institute.

The report found that Illinois is doing better than other states overall. In 2001, the state posted a graduation rate of 75 percent, compared to 68 percent nationwide. But Illinois ranked ninth in terms of racial disparities in graduation rates.

“Although we may be doing better than national averages on the whole, those gaps are significant,” says State Superintendent of Education Robert Schiller. He says a new state-level tracking system that will be rolled out in 18 months should make data-reporting more accurate. The new system will give each student an individual identifying number that will stay with him or her throughout their school career, even if they transfer between school districts.

The Civil Rights Project report, “Losing Our Future,” warns that dropout and graduation rates reported by states are often misleading because states rely on self-reported data from individual districts, which is often unreliable. That holds true in Chicago for several reasons:

Transfers are hard to track

Schools often lack sufficient time and staff to determine whether students actually show up at their new school. In Chicago, transfers are considered valid once the old school receives a transcript request from the new school. In practice, however, there is typically little or no follow-up or monitoring of the practice.

Dropouts are narrowly defined

Chicago and other districts count students who leave high school to enroll in a GED program as transfers. However, these students are far more likely to eventually drop out altogether and never obtain their GED. According to the American Council on Education, only 2 percent of adults who did not have a high school diploma attempted to get their GED in 2001.

In addition, a GED does not offer the same earning power as a diploma. “To be credible, the dropout definition should be simple and clear: Count any student who does not hold a high school diploma,” urges Maria Robledo Montecel, director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a Texas-based education nonprofit.

Students who are incarcerated are also frequently left out of the equation. CPS has maintained it should not be penalized for having large numbers of incarcerated students and students in alternative programs. Many districts level similar criticisms, notes Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute, an education think tank, but he says these criticisms don’t wash. “They begin to confuse blame with a description of reality,” Greene says. “We ought to count people who go to jail as dropouts.”

Districts are not monitored

There is virtually no oversight of the data schools submit on who leaves and why. The Civil Rights Project report cites a 2001 estimate that the federal government spends over $40 million on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but less than $1 million on dropout statistics.

“We are at the mercy of what local districts supply to us in terms of data,” notes Schiller. However, he advocates a carrot rather than a stick to get schools to both improve their data collection and do the difficult work of holding on to potential dropouts. He points to Senate Bill 2918, which would raise the compulsory attendance age to 17 and help fund programs to give students incentives to stay in school, undergo job training and graduate. The report recommends that Illinois provide support and incentives to districts that start with low minority graduation rates but improve substantially over time.

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