2006-07-07 / Columnists

School Scope

City Grad Rates Were In Error
By Norman Scott


When New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced at a press conference on June 29 that the Department of Education had made an error in reporting graduation rates, a betting person would have wagered that a correction in the original DOE estimate of 53% for the class of 2005 would be significantly lower. When reported in February that was a 1% drop from the 2004 graduation class and had resulted in criticism of Klein and Mayor Bloomberg.

In recent weeks, the press has been reporting figures of 39%- 43% from Education Week, the leading national journal of education reporting, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank often critical of Klein, and the New York State Education Department.

During the mayoral campaign last year, Bloomberg's opponent, Freddie Ferrer, claimed these rates were more in line with reality.

Instead of affirming a trend toward this dismal news, Klein reported that due to programming errors, the February number had been too low and the actual graduation rate was 58%, the highest in 20 years and a 4% rise from 2004, one of the largest jumps in history.

The DOE hired the accounting firm of Ernst & Young at a cost of $68,000 to verify the numbers. Klein said the verification practice would continue in future years at roughly the same cost.

Klein also reported good news regarding that the first group of small schools started under his stewardship four years ago had significantly higher graduation rates than large comprehensive high schools, though the numbers were small. When asked whether the fact that special education students had been excluded from many of these schools, being forced to attend the larger schools, had any impact on these numbers, Klein responded that the demographics still showed high numbers of Level 1 and 2 students in the small schools when they opened. He denied these schools engaged in what he termed as "creaming" in an attempt to exclude difficult students.

Responding to reporters at times skeptical questions, Klein admitted that the citywide graduation numbers include high school equivalency (GED) and special education (IEP) diplomas, which he said cannot be considered equal to a traditional diploma. He estimated that excluding GED and IEP diplomas would lower the rate by about 3 percentage points, but pointed out they had always been included in the past, emphasizing he was comparing apples to apples. City graduation figures also exclude disabled students, which the state includes.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, often a critic of Klein and of press coverage of educational issues, said in an email, "Most of the media took Klein's claim with a grain of salt, except for the NY Times, which unaccountably swallowed DOE's claim hook, line and sinker, without mentioning any of the recent and more reputable independent analyses." The article in the Times said "...there was no dispute over the overall graduation numbers, which independent monitors of the school system said was consistent with their own analysis of graduation and dropout trends."

Haimson continued, "There is no respected, independent organization or agency that either agrees with NYC's method of calculating graduation rates - by counting GEDs as regular degrees and excluding special ed kids and thousands of students discharged from the system every year- or their ridiculously inflated figure of 58%."

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