How schools hide dropouts on paper

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“Everybody lies about their dropout rates,” says Paul Vallas. Indeed, dropouts are a fertile field for white lies, damn lies and dubious statistics, to tweak a phrase.

First the statistics. Dropout rates typically get reported on an annual basis: the percentage of a school’s students who exit formal schooling in any given year. For the Chicago Public Schools as a whole, that rate typically has landed in the mid to high teens, compared with a statewide rate around 6 percent.

However, an annual rate gives only a snapshot view of a problem that requires time-lapse photography to fully appreciate. When Chicago calculates the percentage of freshmen who exit formal schooling before receiving a high school diploma, its dropout rate soars to just over 40 percent, which is not unusual for urban school systems.

In the view of Fred Hess, a Northwestern University professor who is studying Chicago’s high schools, Chicago compares favorably to some other cities in defining dropouts. For example, in Chicago, a student who leaves to pursue a GED is considered a dropout; in some other cities, he or she is not.

“I certainly think we’ve traditionally been more honest on this issue than school districts like New York City, where the numbers are very suspicious,” he says. In New York, students transferring to night schools are not counted as dropouts. “Then they drop out of night school, and then they don’t count them as dropouts.”

Then there are the lies.

“The system codes are fairly honest,” says Hess. “Their utilization is the problem, and I don’t think there’s any significant impact on schools for mis-utilizing the codes right now.”

In 1985, Hess, then executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance, published a study showing that as many as 50 percent of the students who had been coded as having transferred to a school outside CPS actually dropped out. The tipoff was that the destinations listed for them either did not exist or were not accredited high schools.

Record keeping has improved since then, but there’s still room for improvement, especially at certain high schools. Catalyst examined the records of the 3,004 CPS high school students who left the system in 1995-96 and were recorded in the two most common transfer codes. One code denotes transfers to private schools inside Chicago; the other, transfers out of the city. That year, nearly a third of the recorded transfers were to unidentified or questionable destinations.

The problems Catalyst found were:

No clear destination. Of the 3,004 students, 308, or 10 percent, were listed as going to such unidentified places as “school out of Chicago” or “Chicago non-public school.”

“We should have much more specificity than that,” says Chief Schools and Regions Officer Blondean Y. Davis. “In terms of tracking, we should know that they went to St. Louis, so-and-so school.” As part of the current audits of high school attendance books, her office is checking transfer destinations.

Unaccredited and dropout programs. Of the 3,004 students, 586, or 20 percent, were coded as transfers to private schools or out-of-city schools even though their destinations—including GED programs, schools for dropouts and unaccredited schools—disqualified them for such coding.

Hess’s 1985 study also questioned whether students coded as transfers ever arrived at their new schools. CPS responded by requiring high schools to “verify” transfers; typically, verification takes the form of a request for a student’s transcript from the receiving school.

According to studies by the board’s Department of Compliance, many schools are not complying. In calculating annual dropout rates, the department found that in 1996-97, the most recent year available at press time, 44 percent of CPS dropouts had been marked as transfers by their high schools even though their arrival was never confirmed.

While schools may find it unfair to have wayward transfers counted against them, central office says it’s their responsibility to make sure their coding reflects what happens. “That’s their problem, if they don’t track their kids,” says Carol Heinrich of the Department of Compliance. “That’s how they want to dump their kids—transfer them out.”

Hess says that the disproportionate number of boys among recorded transfers suggests schools continue to hide dropouts who leave their schools. For the last three years, about 60 percent of recorded transfers were boys, the Department of Research, Assessment and Quality Reviews has found.

“It’s the gender disparity that makes me suspicious that the transfers aren’t legitimate,” he says. “Because if they were legitimate, you would expect the transfers to be roughly equal in gender.”

The School Board’s creation of the Youth Connection Charter School has opened a new avenue for tracking students. As an umbrella charter for 25 dropout programs,

“Now that we have so many different situations, the code system may need to be revised,” observes Geraldine Oberman, director of the Department of Compliance.

Maureen Kelleher

Contributing: Bernice Yeung

CORRECTION: As printed in our June issue and earlier on this web site, our story “How schools hide dropouts on paper” reported incorrect enrollment and dropout data for the Youth Connection Charter School. Supplied by Northwestern University Prof. Fred Hess, the data inadvertently included some alternative schools that are not members of the Youth Connection charter. According to Youth Connection’s 1997-98 annual report, 380 of the 1,425 students who enrolled in the charter dropped out during the school year, far fewer than the number supplied by Mr. Hess. However, the annual report also notes that due to reporting difficulties, its own totals may be slightly lower than actual.