Update: June 11, 2015 4:54 p.m. BGA/WBEZ Report On CPS Prompts Probe, Reforms

During a campaign speech earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted that seven in 10 Chicago Public Schools students were now graduating high school – a figure City Hall has repeatedly trotted out to show improvements in the long-troubled educational system.

But a months-long investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ radio found that the oft-cited figure is inflated, perhaps grossly so.

CPS records recently obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show at least 2,200 students from 25 Chicago high schools were counted as “transfers” – departing the system for another district from 2011 to 2014 – when they should have been classified as “dropouts.”

Dropouts Classified As Transfers

Dropouts Classified As Transfers |

Transfers aren’t factored into CPS graduation rates, while dropouts are.

Bottom-line: The 69.4 percent rate cited by Emanuel during his Jan. 8 campaign speech at the Chicago Cultural Center – and cited thereafter by the mayor’s office – is inaccurate, the BGA and WBEZ found.

If the students were counted correctly, the graduation rate – the percentage of high school freshmen matriculating within five years – would drop to about 67 percent. However, even that revised figure is conservative because it’s based on just a 25-school sampling of CPS’ 140 charter and non-charter high schools, which collectively have about 112,000 students.

The real rate could be much lower.

Asked about all of this by the BGA and WBEZ, CPS officials confirmed the findings, acknowledging problems with the system’s accounting. But the officials said they have no plans to go back and adjust the numbers and insisted they weren’t purposely skewed to help Emanuel look better to potential voters.

“The mayor is absolutely interested in making sure we have accurate data,” said John Barker, CPS’ chief accountability officer.

Emanuel released a statement late Tuesday that said in part: “No one questions the facts: more CPS students are graduating than ever before, those students are more prepared for their futures and we’re making huge strides in helping struggling kids graduate.”

The CPS inspector general was aware of graduation-rate problems with one school, Farragut Career Academy, but CPS officials apparently did not know how widespread the problem was until contacted by reporters.

Official CPS Graduation Rate

Official CPS Graduation Rate | Create infographics

CPS has claimed the graduation rate has been steadily rising, from 58.3 percent in 2011, the year Emanuel was first elected mayor, to 65.4 percent in 2013.

CPS has said the rate is improving largely because of special attention paid to freshmen. Studies show that first-year high school students are more likely to graduate if they do well as freshmen.

Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connection Charter School, an “alternative” high school network for “at-risk” students, said she has long been suspicious of the CPS numbers because her group continues to deal with a steady flow of dropouts.

Regardless of whether CPS numbers are exaggerated, Venson said the real focus should be on the kids: Where are they if they’re not in class? And why are they not in class? State law mandates attendance until age 17.

“Are these kids walking out? Are they being pushed out? Are they formally dropping out?” Venson said.

Experts said there’s little incentive for administrators to report enrollment information accurately as Chicago public schools are under intense pressure from City Hall to improve, with principals facing termination and schools threatened with closure.

Jose Sanchez, coordinator for VOYCE, a citywide youth-led network of advocacy groups, said when students hear about the increasing graduation rate they roll their eyes. “They are like, ‘Not in my school,’” he said.

It’s unclear how long CPS has been counting dropouts as transfers, though the practice may date many years to before Emanuel took office, when Richard M. Daley was mayor.

CPS officials conceded that they have no systemic way to make sure schools are authenticating transfers. A variety of school staff, from principals to clerks to counselors, can wind up doing the paperwork when a student stops attending school.

In analyzing CPS’ own records, the BGA and WBEZ found numerous students were categorized as transfers to alternative schools or GED programs when that either wasn’t true or, even if it was true in certain cases, they should have been classified as dropouts.

The three high schools with the most kids wrongly classified as transfers over the past four years are: Kelly High School on the Southwest Side, with 398 students; Foreman High School on the Northwest Side with 161 students; and Washington High School on the Southeast Side with 145 students, records show.

Another anomaly found in the BGA/WBEZ analysis beyond the 2,200 students: Records show Curie Metro High School on the Southwest Side had 460 students listed as transferring out for home schooling. CPS officials said that number seems high and they will now try to determine whether it’s accurate.

Meanwhile, another 1,300 CPS students in the 25 schools examined by the BGA and WBEZ were identified in CPS records as transfers but their destinations were extremely vague – listed in paperwork simply as “Mexico” or “out of state” – raising further questions about accurate record-keeping.

Barker said he plans to take a number of steps moving forward to make sure that dropouts are correctly identified. For instance, he is putting a system in place to audit school records and train clerks and other staff responsible for doing the paperwork when students leave schools.

Barker said he also is looking at whether there is some way to reform the computer system to prevent CPS staff from entering in transfer codes unless they have documentation.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the agency is also coming up with a new methodology for determining graduation rates, though he was short on details.

This is not the first time the Emanuel administration has come under fire for fuzzy math – Chicago police statistics also have come under intense scrutiny, most recently from Chicago magazine, which questioned whether crime rates are being doctored to make the city look safer than it is.

Although data can easily be manipulated, government has an obligation to ensure the integrity of public information, said Larry Lesser, an associate professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Texas-El Paso.

“Ultimately it becomes a question of politics,” he said. “Is there political will to make sure the information is right?”

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp and WBEZ’s Becky Vevea. They can be reached at (312) 525-3483 or skarp@bettergov.org. Some of the research was done while Karp was at her former employer, Catalyst Chicago.