CPS graduation rate to reach highest since 1999, not 'record' as appeared

May 28, 2013 2:55:27 PM PDT
Chicago Public Schools administrators are backtracking after making some misleading claims about the school district's graduation rate.

According to CPS figures, students are on track to set the highest high school graduation rate since 1999, but initially, CPS and the mayor said this year's expected graduation rate was its highest ever.

"One for the record books. Sixty-three percent of our children will graduate high school which is a new record for the city," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

That claim is not entirely true. Fourteen years ago, the school system began a new, more detailed way of measuring high school graduation rates. So this year can only be proclaimed a record since 1999. And the numbers are based on allowing graduating seniors to finish high school in five years instead of four. That's not an unusual way for large urban districts to calculate.

Also misleading: CPS' 63 percent graduation statistic includes students who take five years to receive their diploma rather than the traditional four years.

"Getting through in five years is indicative of persistence. A kid has made it through despite some potholes," said Barbara Radner of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University.

However the numbers are described, Radner says better attendance and graduation rates do speak of progress.

"We're not satisfied, but we do think this is an opportunity to send a post card home. It's good news," said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Graduation rates have been trending higher over the last several years. Radner suggests that's due to more sophisticated computer tracking of student attendance and grades - particularly at the freshman level where, for some, academic stumbles can become magnified.

"In the past you'd get a failure notice. Too bad. Now you get a failure warning. I'm not talking about the kid, I'm talking about the school," said Radner.

And that's meant to trigger intervention teams which may be key in improving both attendance and graduation rates.

We cannot say this work is finished until each child in Chicago is successful.

The graduation rate that has inched up from 58 percent two years ago to 61 percent last year to a projected 63 percent this year are seen as victories - if the trend continues. At the same time, this year's graduation rate also means that four in ten starting high school don't finish.

By comparison, New York City public schools report 70 percent of its students graduate within five years, according to the most recent data available.

In her closing remarks, Byrd-Bennett implored her City Club audience to "Suspend your disbelief. Celebrate the victories that will only multiply."

The graduation rate that has inched up from 58 percent two years ago to 61 percent last year to a projected 63 percent this year are seen as victories - if the trend continues.

At the same time, this year's graduation rate also means that four in ten students starting high school don't finish.