Throughout the Bloomberg years, when the administration would trumpet rising graduation rates, I noticed how the discharge numbers were very high and seemed to be increasing. Every student listed as a “discharge” rather than a “dropout” can inflate a school’s figures, as he or she are no longer counted in the cohort -- in either the denominator or the numerator for the purposes of calculating the graduation rate.
So in 2009, I co-authored a report with Jennifer Jennings, entitled High School Discharges Revisited: Trends in NYC’s Discharge Rates, 2000-2007. Our analysis showed that discharge rates had increased over this period, especially among Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and English language learners.
Between the classes of 2000 and 2007, the discharge rate for students with disabilities increased from 17 to 23 percent, including in the class of 2005 where it spiked at 39 percent. The report provided evidence that a thousand students had been “moved” into the special education cohort that year, possibly in order so DOE could claim an increase in the overall graduation rate. Finally, we pointed out how some of the students categorized as discharges according to the DOE codes, such as students who left school to attend GED programs or because of pregnancy, should have been listed as drop-outs instead, according to state and federal standards.
Our report led the DOE to change its coding for some of the categories and the City Council to pass a law called Local Law 42, to require detailed and disaggregated discharge reporting each year. The results of that reporting are here.
A related law, Local Law 43, was also passed required the reporting of discharge rates at closing high schools, shown here; in these schools the discharge and drop out rates increase sharply. Here is my testimony in support of both these bills.
Also as a direct result of our report, Betsy Gotbaum, then the Public Advocate, asked the NY State Comptroller to audit DOE’s discharge rates. When the results of that audit were finally released in 2011, they revealed that 14.8% of students who were labelled as discharged should have been identified as dropouts instead, and fully 20% of the special education students. Moreover, the auditors found that DOE had no evidence to show that more than half of their sample of discharged students weren't actually dropouts; taking DOE months to come up with documentation.
Just a few weeks ago, on Sept. 9, 2014, the NY State Comptroller’s office released a little noted, follow-up report showing almost no improvement in this area. According to a DOE internal audit from 2012, as many as 14% of reported discharges still should have been reported as dropouts. A subsequent audit from December 2013 continued to find unspecified errors in DOE’s discharge classifications.
I have now FOILed DOE and the State Comptroller for these two audits; we will see how long it takes them to respond. Yet it is disappointing that there has been so little progress in the accurate reporting of this data, whether out of sloppiness or to inflate NYC's graduation rate, especially given DOE’s claims of being a “data-driven” agency.