Dropout numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down, and there’s plenty of incentive for schools to game the stats. Catalyst and WBEZ’s recent reporting on how dropouts are counted eerily echoes a Catalyst investigation from 16 years ago. In fact, accurate recording of dropouts has been a problem in Chicago since at least 1985.
In 1999, Catalyst reviewed student record data for a subgroup of high schools—much as reporters Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea did this year—and found the schools had recorded large numbers of departing students as transfers when they should have been coded as dropouts.
“That’s how they want to dump their kids—transfer them out,” said Geraldine Oberman, then the district compliance officer then responsible for dropout record keeping.
In a follow-up story, dropout expert G. Alfred Hess noted the warning signs that a high school may be hiding dropouts: a high transfer rate, a disproportionate number of male students among transfers and transfers to destinations difficult to verify, such as countries outside the United States.
See “How schools hide dropouts on paper,” in “Pushouts,” Catalyst June 1999; and “Kelly’s low rate raises questions, board takes note,” in “Keeping Teachers,” Catalyst September 1999
While increased cooperation between alternative schools and CPS has opened new avenues for struggling students to earn diplomas, it has also created new opportunities for CPS high school staff to hide dropouts.
For example, when students leave a CPS high school for an alternative school, some schools of departure have classified those students as “out of district transfers.” This category allows schools to drop students from the rolls without counting them as dropouts. This practice directly conflicted with longstanding CPS policy to count students who left for alternative schools as dropouts. The 1999 investigation found schools engaging in this form of deception.
Now, there’s a new twist. Since 2007 Chicago Public Schools has counted alternative school graduates toward its own graduation rates. As a result, alternative school graduates raise graduation rates for CPS high schools and the system as a whole, but alternative school dropouts do not depress those rates, creating inflated statistics.
See “Tinkering with the high school graduation rate,” Catalyst February 2015
When district officials were confronted with the Catalyst/WBEZ findings, they initially responded by calling for an audit of student records, but acknowledged that they would not change previously reported graduation rates as a result of audit findings. Later, they promised to add new compliance safeguards like requiring training for staff, randomly spot-checking data for accuracy, and referring questionable record keeping to the law department and the inspector general’s office.
However, the district has a poor track record of getting its high schools to report dropouts accurately, to say the least. With dropout and graduation rates considered in school ratings, the temptation to cheat is great. Unless the consequences of these new procedural safeguards outweigh the current advantages of fudging numbers, reporters will likely rediscover the problem of hidden dropouts again in years to come.
See “CPS’ Fuzzy Math – Mayor Touts Bogus Graduation Rate,” Better Government Association
and “CPS acknowledges errors, takes steps to count dropouts correctly,” WBEZ