BGA/WBEZ Report On CPS Prompts Probe, Reforms

After the Better Government Association and WBEZ find the Chicago Public Schools graduation rate has been inflated, the agency inspector general launches investigation, and CPS officials pledge changes.

Even as the mayor’s office downplayed findings by the Better Government Association and WBEZ that Chicago Public Schools graduation rates are inflated, the agency’s internal watchdog announced he will investigate, and district officials said new protocols are being put in place to try to ensure future information is accurate.

"Issues like these go to the core of what CPS is about – the education of children," CPS Inspector General Nick Schuler told the BGA on Thursday, confirming that he is launching a wide-ranging investigation. "We will look at the process and try to determine the extent of the problem."

A months-long analysis by the BGA and WBEZ found that 2,200 students from 25 CPS high schools were counted as transfers from 2011 to 2014 when they should have been classified as dropouts.

Dropouts are counted in the graduation rate while transfers are not.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been bragging that the rate is rising and now stands at 69.4 percent, meaning roughly seven of 10 freshmen graduate within five years. But the BGA and WBEZ found that number, if dropouts were properly counted, would be at most 67 percent and – because the BGA/WBEZ review involved just 25 of CPS’ 140 charter and non-charter high schools – perhaps much lower.

City Hall denied CPS was manipulating numbers to make the mayor look better to potential voters, but Schuler indicated he will try to determine whether anyone was purposely falsifying documents. Schuler ultimately has the authority to recommend punishments such as firings, and refer potential criminal matters to prosecutors.

While Schuler is launching his investigation because of the BGA/WBEZ findings, he previously investigated this subject less broadly at Farragut High School, where almost 300 students who should have been coded as dropouts were instead coded as transfers.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the BGA/WBEZ report, CPS officials said they are taking steps to prevent future problems with how the graduation rate is computed.

From now on, principals will be forced to take responsibility for how students are labeled when they leave schools. At the moment, numerous school staff – from principals to clerks to counselors – could be responsible for verifying transfers or doing the paperwork when a student drops out.

Now, at the annual Law Conference that principals attend in the summer they will have to sign a document taking responsibility for overseeing and complying with the student transfer process.

Additionally, CPS officials will randomly spot check records and, when they find problems, alert the inspector general.

"CPS is committed to ensuring the accuracy of our data," interim CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz said in a statement.

But City Hall still sounded a dismissive tone, saying earlier this week that regardless of the BGA/WBEZ numbers "more students are graduating than ever before."

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, who can be reached at (312) 525-3483 or skarp@bettergov.org or on Twitter @SSKedreporter.