By Becky Vevea/WBEZ, Sarah Karp/Better Government Association
Graduation rates at almost every Chicago high school over the past four years have been revised following an investigation last year by WBEZ and the Better Government Association.
Data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that all but a handful of schools saw their graduation rates revised downward after Chicago Public Schools ‘righted’ the district-wide numbers going back to 2011. The change came after officials clarified to principals and school staff who they should count as a dropout after a story questioning reported figures.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted improving graduation rates as he campaigned for re-election last year. But an investigation by WBEZ and the BGA found that graduation rates were inflated, because many principals were regularly labeling students as transfers out of the district when they should have been classified as dropouts. In response, CPS went back and scrutinized who had been counted as a transfer in the past.
New school-level data provided by CPS show that 4,500 more students dropped out over the past four years than previously reported by the district.
The new data also show some schools saw significant changes in their graduation rate, especially in the past two years, when the mislabeling of students appears to be more widespread.
In 2014, for instance, a total of 26 out of 140 high schools’ graduation rates were revised down by more than 5 percent. The biggest decreases were at Curie Metropolitan High School and Kennedy High Schools on the Southwest Side and Foreman High School on the Northwest Side. With a combined student population of 4,500, they are three of the biggest high schools in the district.
Following the CPS revisions, Curie’s 2014 graduation rate went from 81 percent to 70 percent; Kennedy’s dropped from 65 percent to 56 percent; and Foreman’s slipped from 71 percent to 60 percent.
The revisions at Curie stemmed from the fact that around 100 students were improperly labeled each year as leaving to be homeschooled. The principal who oversaw the mislabeling has since retired and the new administration did not want to comment on past practices.
Among the few CPS high schools with no change to their graduation rates were selective enrollment centers Jones, Northside and Westinghouse.
Even with the revisions, most high schools still saw growth in their graduation numbers since 2010. After revisions, Hancock High School on the Southwest Side still went from graduating just over half its student body in 2010 to graduating nearly 80 percent last year. Fenger High School and Harper High School also still saw big gains. Both South Side schools were graduating just 3 in 10 students five years ago and now more than half are earning diplomas. Both schools received multi-million dollar school improvement grants from the federal government during that time.
Principals said they were never told about their revised rates from 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. They only got their official 2015 rate calculated with extra scrutiny on mislabeled dropouts. That meant that many of them saw what appeared to them as huge drops.
Graduation rates are used in the district’s school rating system and many principals have pointed to increases as a way to market themselves and attract more families.
The view from the principal’s office
Foreman High School Principal Dan Zimmerman thought his school’s graduation rate was a respectable 70 percent and climbing.
But when CPS sent the new numbers, Foreman’s rate had dropped to a sobering 55 percent.
“It is the equivalent of taking away the three-point shot after the season is done and then going back and changing the win-loss record for the entire season,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said, in the past, Foreman staff would deliberately counsel students who were off track into alternative schools or GED programs as a way to increase their chances of graduating.
“These kids no longer count as success stories for us,” he said.
CPS officials said that’s not entirely true. If the student successfully graduates from a CPS-sponsored alternative school within five years of entering high school, they would still count as a success story for Foreman. Training videos posted to YouTube last fall explain how to properly code students in various scenarios.
Many principals interviewed by WBEZ and the BGA disputed the data or expressed confusion with how the district gathers and reports the numbers.
Bogan High School Principal Alahrie Aziz-Sims said in an e-mail that the school’s data “included a group of students who had never attended Bogan.”
Aziz-Sims said the students had been assigned to the school as freshmen to the school, but never showed up.
“We are waiting on an updated graduation rate, but with all of the changes, we’re still waiting on a final number,” she wrote.
“I find the decrease very suspicious,” said one charter school principal, who did not want to be identified. Her school’s graduation rate dropped by 20 percentage points. She said that once students leave her school, she has no way to know whether they graduated or eventually dropped out, but she finds it hard to believe that so many more students were lost from one year to the next. “We are still in the investigation phase.”
The debate over how to calculate graduation rates
Some of the confusion over graduation rates is also fueled by the fact that the district issues schools two different graduation rates — one that tracks students over four years and one that tracks them for five years. The four-year rate matters for a school’s rating, but the five-year rate is the one that gets talked about publicly. The state and federal governments both use slightly different calculations too.
Since 1999, CPS has calculated graduation rates by following the freshmen enrolled at each school by the 20th day of classes. Those students are tracked for five years and regardless of where they might earn their diploma, the student is counted as either a dropout or a graduate at the school where they first enrolled.
The University of Chicago Consortium for Chicago School Research spearheaded the method of following a school’s freshmen and counting the ones that get their diploma as graduates.
“Student outcomes are largely set by their performance in their 9th grade year,” said Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring Director of the Consortium. She said it’s problematic when dropouts get mislabeled, but sometimes students who truly have transferred to another school are wrongly counted as a dropout.
“A lot of times people look for one right number, they say ‘What is the graduation rate?’ and there is no one graduation rate because it depends,” Allensworth said, adding that no matter what calculation is used, it’s imperative to have good data.
What’s more, Allensworth stresses that more students are getting diplomas in Chicago.
Indeed, the analysis done by WBEZ and the Better Government Association shows that compared to 2010, many schools graduation rates are up. Even after the revisions, 27 high schools saw double digit increases in their graduation rates between 2010 and 2015.