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Comptroller finds city underreported high school drop-outs

City school officials have underreported the number of students who dropped out of high school in the past by reclassifying some of them, according to a report released by the State Comptroller today.

The report, which comes out of an audit completed by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office in January, examines a group of students that are labeled as “discharged,” meaning they have left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state or deciding to enroll in a G.E.D. program. It finds that some of these students should actually have been labeled as drop-outs, but because of paperwork errors or school officials’ failure to follow state regulations in certain cases, they were counted as discharged.

Students who are discharged don’t count towards the city’s drop-out rate and some advocates have argued that principals can misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially. Overall, the comptroller’s report found that even with the improper discharge classifications taken into account, the city’s graduation rate was “generally accurate.”

To determine whether the city’s Department of Education was improperly classifying drop-outs as discharges, auditors in the comptroller’s office examined the records of students who started high school in 2004 and should have graduated in 2008, but were discharged along the way. They randomly chose 500 of the 17,025 general education students who were discharged and 100 of the 1,923 discharged special education students.

Through interviews with principals and guidance counselors and analysis of students’ records, auditors found that 74 of the 500 (about 15 percent) discharged general education students and  should have been considered drop-outs. For special education students, 20 of 100 did not have enough documentation to prove they had been discharged.

The report notes that in the vasty majority of these cases of improperly labeled students, schools weren’t able able to find enough documentation of students’ new schools or entrance in G.E.D. programs to satisfy the State Education Department’s requirements for discharge.

But in some cases, the report says, the students had clearly dropped out. According to the report, one student who quit high school to join the military was classified as discharged. Another dropped out and was labeled as such, but then the school changed the students’ classification to discharged and couldn’t provide auditors with documentation to show why.

DOE officials responded to the report by saying that most of the students who the comptroller designated as erroneously discharged were not hidden drop-outs. Instead, they are victims of a discrepancy between the city and state’s standards for proving students have been discharged.

“We believe that, in practice, they [the state standards] impose an unfair and unwarranted burden on school principals, administrators, counselors, and outreach workers,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow Suransky in his written response to the audit.

In response to the audit, school officials challenged some of the report’s findings. One example they cited as evidence of the state’s overly strict standards was the case of a student who left her New York City high school and returned to West Africa after her father was deported. Her uncle confirmed that she had left but because her school couldn’t verify this directly with the student’s father, auditors said she should have been labeled a drop-out.

In the report, the comptroller’s office responds that the student was discharged in 2004 but it wasn’t until May of 2010 that city officials interviewed the girl’s uncle and learned that she had returned to West Africa in 2007. For the three years between when she stopped going to high school and when she left the country, the city had no documentation proving she had been in school.

Lower East Side Prep High School Principal Marth Polin said that properly discharging students is not easy. Many of her students are recent immigrants from China and it’s not unusual for them to leave the U.S. or New York City without telling anyone at her school.

“It’s very arduous,” she said of the discharge process. “The problem is they often don’t tell us they’re leaving, and then we’re held accountable for them.”

When Polin’s students do tell her where they’re going, they still have to sit for a planning interview, sign papers saying they are discharging themselves (or their parents are), and provide a plane ticket proving they are leaving the country. Once they’ve left, they have to prove they’ve enrolled in a new school, otherwise they’re classified as drop-outs.

“I don’t think it’s entirely fair because any of us that do take a lot of immigrant kids, we do take the biggest hit,” Polin said.

“It may be arduous but there’s no other way to get around to actually verify this stuff,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters. Two years ago, Haimson and Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, released a report on the city’s increasing number of discharged students.

Haimson said that because schools are graded — and sometimes closed — based on their graduation rates, principals have an incentive to use the discharge label for their students who drop out.

“It’s a combination of sloppy oversight and an accountability system which really hurts these kids the most, by having schools push them out and then lie about it,” she said.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.