Flaws found in District suspension data

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook‘s winter issue uncovered and highlighted what appeared to be a sharp increase in suspensions of young students in the School District. One of our findings — that 33 kindergartners had been suspended by mid-November, compared to only one in the same period of the prior year — was picked up widely by news media from the New York Times to ABC News.

Further investigation has turned up discrepancies in the School District data used in our winter report and raised questions about the reliability of District suspension reports.

When the Notebook went back to the District in February and received updated numbers on students suspended, the trends did not match up with the earlier data; the increase in suspensions from last year to this year was not nearly as great as had been reported in our issue.

To clarify the situation, we requested that the District re-run the initial report comparing the periods up to mid-November in 2002 and 2001. The District’s numbers came back looking very different from the report they had provided us earlier covering exactly the same period. The same query covering the same time periods produced different numbers.

Particularly for the lower grades, the newly generated suspension numbers for the fall of 2001 were significantly higher than the original numbers provided for that same period. There were smaller variations between the two versions of the report when looking at the numbers for this school year.

At press time, the School District was unable to explain why the suspension numbers are inconsistent and particularly why District suspension figures for a time period more than a year ago would have changed between November and February.

District officials say they are working on the problem, but that at this time they cannot vouch for any of their suspension data.

"We’re dealing with a 13-year-old system and possibly some degree of human error," said District spokesperson Cecilia Cummings.

One fact that is apparent from a review of the available suspension data is that widespread kindergarten suspensions were not a new phenomenon this year in Philadelphia. In the school year ending June 2000, the District suspended 114 kindergartners. The available evidence suggests that the fall 2001 suspension figures reported by the Notebook in our winter edition were too low, and so the increase in the suspension rate this year is less dramatic than it appeared.

If any of the current year totals are accurate, they indicate that the School District continues to suspend students at high rates, despite CEO Paul Vallas’s stated opposition to out-of-school suspensions. Each of the available reports shows the District to be on a pace to suspend over 40,000 students this year — or one out of every five students in the District.