ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
States and school districts across the country are making their high school graduation rates look better than they really are. In Chicago, that's been done by misclassifying the status of thousands of at-risk students. An NPR Ed team investigation revealed this yesterday, and in response, the city now says it's going to crack down. Here's Becky Vevea of member station WBEZ in Chicago.
BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: Before we get to exactly how it plans to crack down, let's back up. Here's what's been going on - over the last four years, thousands of dropouts across at least two-dozen Chicago high schools never counted against the city's graduation rate because the schools mislabeled them as having left the public school system. The district's inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, was first to look into the problem, focusing on a few schools. He found...
NICHOLAS SCHULER: Two high schools had been improperly coding students as transfers to GED programs.
VEVEA: Illinois law is clear - those students should be counted as dropouts. And Schuler found staff doing all of this deliberately. He also wrote about how large groups of students were listed as, quote, "transferred to Mexico" without providing the name or address of any school. That's exactly what we found in the records we looked at across 25 Chicago high schools. At one school, an average of more than a hundred students a year supposedly left for home-schooling. Is that possible? Maybe. But it's a huge outlier. Most high schools listed only a handful of students leaving to be home-schooled each year. The home-schooling label is important because again it removes students from a school's graduation rate.
JOHN BARKER: Yes, we have identified that there are some issues associated with our coding processes.
VEVEA: John Barker is in charge of accountability at CPS and says he's well-aware of the mislabeling.
BARKER: What we need to do is, we need to ask some questions. Is that a concern to us? Yes. Are we interested in following-up? Yes.
VEVEA: Despite these errors, Barker, along with researchers at the University of Chicago, say this shouldn't negate real progress. Elaine Allensworth studies the city's schools.
ELAINE ALLENSWORTH: There is always doubt about what the exact number is because there is ambiguity, but that doesn't mean that the trends in graduation rates aren't real.
VEVEA: Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office insists the city's rate is going up no matter what. By our measure, the errors at just those 25 high schools we looked at would decrease the graduation rate by two percentage points. Chicago has a total of 140 high schools. Officials don't dispute the fact that the database is riddled with errors. Still, they say they will not go back and revise the graduation rates. What they will do, school district officials say, is this. Require random spot checks of all school transfer data, make principals sign a document taking full responsibility for making sure transfers are in fact real transfers, require staff to attend trainings and refer any questionable activity to the law department and the office of the inspector general. Again, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.
SCHULER: We're going to hopefully determine the full extent of the problem and find out just where responsibility lies for those problems.
VEVEA: But he says that could take a really long time. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea in Chicago.
SIEGEL: And that story was co-reported with Sarah Karp of the Better Government Association in Chicago.
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