We would like to thank the Comptroller Di Napoli and the Office of the State Comptroller for their hard work on today’s discharge rate audit, which was done in response to a request on April 30, 2009 from Betsy Gotbaum, then-NYC Public Advocate, following a report that we wrote with Jennifer Jennings on the continued high number of students reported as discharged from NYC public schools. (Our 2009 report is posted here)
Even after the OSC office allowed the DOE to provide “additional information and documentation” for randomly selected students who did not have sufficient evidence in their files, 15% of the general education students in the graduating class of 2008 who were reported as discharged, and 20% of those from the special education cohort did not have the required proof to show that they were not actually dropouts. Thus, all these students were improperly removed from the cohort, inflating DOE’s reported graduation rates.
The audit’s findings of an error rate of between 15-20% in reported discharge rates are cause for grave concern that the DOE is not providing sufficient oversight to ensure accurate graduation and discharge figures.
According to the OSC, this means that between 2000-3000 of the general education discharges and between 266 and 539 special education students were “probably incorrect and should instead have been classified as dropouts.”
That fully 20% of the special education sample was incorrectly identified as discharged would lower this groups abysmal graduation rate even further to between 8.9 and 9.3 percent, compared to 9.7 percent reported by DoE.
The OSC concludes: “When we statistically projected the results of our sample to the entire [general education] cohort, we found that the correct graduation rate for the cohort was probably between 62.9 and 63.6 percent, rather than the 65.5 percent reported by DoE. “
Yet as the DOE itself notes; the official overall graduation rate for the class of 2008, according to SED guidelines , was really 56.4%, not 65.5%, so it would have been better for the OSC to provide an estimate of how much lower the actual graduation rate would have likely been, with all students included.
The OSC statement that since the city’s graduation rate was likely less than 5 percentage points lower than originally claimed means that the reported graduation rate was “generally accurate” and that errors “would not negate the upward trends in graduation rates in recent years” is puzzling, since reported increases have only been about 2-3% per year, for general education students, and among special education students much less, so an error rate of 2-3%, as the OSC found, would be about the same as the reported increases.
In any event, a 15-20% error rate in discharges remains very high. This high rate of errors reflects DOE’s lack of proper oversight or any accountability mechanisms to verify that discharges are properly reported at the school level. In addition, as the audit pointed out, some of these errors are related to the DOE’s failure to align its discharge guidelines to those of the state, by counting students who have transferred to non-approved GED programs (outside DOE) as discharges instead of dropouts.
Some important questions remain unanswered:
There remains no explanation as to why the discharge rate of students in their first year of high school has doubled under this administration, as our report noted. There also is no explanation as to why so many of the students reported as discharged are the most at-risk students, including those who are male, ELL, Hispanic and/or African-American, if these figures are more or less accurate.
I urge the DOE to agree to clear up some of these mysteries, by regularly reporting discharges, disaggregated by age, code, special education status, and demographic background, as a recently introduced City Council bill would require, though the DOE has expressed its opposition to such reporting at Council hearings. If they have nothing to hide they will agree to report all this data on a regular basis.
The DOE should also release full graduation and discharge figures in their annual graduation reports, including data for special education students, which they have failed to do since we released our discharge report in April 2009, despite repeated requests.
The NYC Department of Education should report an annual graduation rate that includes all students, rather than continuing to report as its “official” rate just the general education cohort.
I remain concerned that students who have transferred to GED programs within the DOE system but do not receive GEDs should not be classified as discharges, because this artificially raises school graduation rates. Also that students who receive GEDs should not be reported as a regular graduates, because a GED is not a high school diploma, whether or not that conforms to state guidelines. Otherwise, with the pressure on schools to inflate their graduation rates, they will continue to have an incentive to push at-risk students into GED programs and the like.
Finally, the DOE should revise its excessively harsh and punitive accountability system, so as to minimize the incentive of schools to inflate their graduation rates either through increased discharges to GED programs and/or falsifying their reporting. Unless this occurs, schools will remain motivated to shade the truth, and “push out” or exclude our neediest students, because of fears that they will be closed down or have half their teachers fired if their graduation rates do not improve.
Here is one example, from the audit, of a student whom the DOE claimed was a legitimate discharge, because an attendance teacher said that he had confirmed with a neighbor that she had moved to the Dominican Republic, and that this “was later confirmed by the student directly.” (p.31) Yet as the OSC responded:
School officials discharged this student in January 2008 without proper documentation to support their discharge determination. School officials stated they made a home visit in January 2008 and were told by a neighbor that the family had moved to the Dominican Republic (DR). DoE officials provided a memo, dated May 1, 2010, in which the student confirmed having travelled to the DR on December 18, 2007. However, when we spoke to the student, she told us that she and her family had lived at the same address for many years and she had not been visited by any attendance teachers in January 2008. She did acknowledge that a DoE employee had visited her in May 2010 [presumably after the audit began]. She also told us she had traveled to the DR on December 18, 2007, to spend Christmas with her family. She said when she tried to attend school after her return to the USA, she was refused admittance because the school had already listed her as being discharged. Since school officials did not have the appropriate documentation required by SED, this student should have been classified as a dropout or should have remained on the school’s register and included in the calculation of the graduation rate for her cohort. (p. 47)
As long as schools continue to be punished for low graduation rates with the threat of closure, instead of provided with help to improve outcomes, they will continue to exclude students like this one. It is students like these who will suffer the most.