Introducing a regular feature in which we take a look at the history of New York City’s schools.

The Gothamschools Time Machine

The chancellor makes a self-congratulatory announcement about a reduced dropout rate. But analysis by a watchdog organization, often critical of the chancellor’s leadership, says the real rate is much lower. On-the-ground reports from principals confirm the less impressive numbers. Statisticians express skepticism about double-digit improvements. And no one can seem to determine the best way to calculate graduation rates.

This story isn’t ripped from today’s headlines, although if you have read Nat Hentoff’s latest installment in the Village Voice, in part about the persistent unreliability of the city’s graduation data, you can be forgiven for thinking it might be. It’s actually from the New York Times of March 4, 1987:

In a self-congratulatory mood, the New York City Board of Education three weeks ago announced what it hailed as a major improvement in the dropout rate in the city’s schools, down to 30.7 percent. But the fanfare subsided when a respected educational group contended last week that a truer figure for the dropout rate in the last school year was 50.4 percent.

A startling statistic kept by the executive director of the board’s high schools division, Dr. Frank L. Smith Jr., added to the credibility of the higher figure, provided by the Educational Priorities Panel. …

The president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, P. Michael Timpane, also questioned the Board of Education’s 30.7 percent figure, which represents a decline in the dropout rate of 11.8 percentage points since 1984, when the rate was announced as 42.5 percent. ”For those figures to go down as fast as they did is hard to swallow,” he said. ”I think a sharp jump is very hard to believe and raises issues.”

At the heart of the difference between the views of the dropout rate is the way the figures are calculated.

To get the 30.7 percent figure, which is 4.6 percentage points lower than the board’s figure the year before, school officials counted all students in the ninth grade and above who dropped out during the 1985-86 school year and divided that figure into the student registration for those grades. Then, using a weighted average, they projected that rate forward for four years.

But the 30.7 percent figure, some educators contend, is misleading, in part because it does not include students who should be considered as dropouts. For example, students who fail in a city high school and leave to attend privately run programs to get a general equivalency diploma are not considered dropouts by the Board of Education.

In contrast, the Educational Priorities Panel – like Dr. Smith’s calculation for the class of students moving from the freshman to the senior year at Jefferson High – counted the number of students who started in the ninth grade and graduated four years later and calculated the percentage.

Increasingly, educators say that such a calculation is the most accurate measure of how a school system is managing to persuade disaffected students to stick it out to receive a high school diploma.

One thing truly has changed: the timeline for the release of graduation data. This article — and the graduation rate it describes — appeared in early March. Twenty-one years later, it’s August and we’re still waiting for graduation figures from 2007, even after the state told the Times last month that the data would be released by the end of July.