Seeking ways to reform high schools, members of the National Governors Association (NGA) got a reality check recently in the form of a study showing only slightly more than one-half of Chicago’s public high school students graduate in four years – contrary to much rosier statistics reported by school bureaucrats.
The study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research indicated that the governors’ objective of reforming high schools may be more difficult to achieve than thought, especially for distressed urban systems like Chicago’s. Still, at long last getting an accurate measurement of the problem could be an important first step.
At a two-day summit in Washington, the NGA considered, among other things, a $42 million philanthropic initiative that would help states raise high school graduation rates and readiness for college. One of the prime supporters of this effort is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Consortium’s 76-page report found a graduation rate for 2004 of just 54 percent of Chicago public school students who had entered CPS schools as freshmen in 2000. By contrast, the state’s report card had showed a graduation rate of 71 percent for the Class of 2004. The Illinois State Board of Education’s formula inflates the graduation rate in large part because students who transfer to other schools and then drop out are not counted as dropouts.
The study found even more horrendous examples at particular Chicago schools. Some had graduation rates as low as 20 percent. While the Consortium noted some gains in Chicago’s overall graduation rate since the mid-1990s, improvement for minority children was harder to discern. In 2004, only 39 percent of African-American males and 51 percent of Latino males had graduated by age 19. (The rates for girls were somewhat better, but still far from satisfactory: 57 percent for African-Americans, 65 percent for Latinas.)
” Graduation from high school is one of the most important indicators of students’ success in later life, while failure to graduate from high school leads to numerous costs for both the individual and society,” noted Elaine Allensworth, author of the Consortium study. “Yet, up to this point it has been difficult for most people to get accurate information about the percentage of students that graduate from Chicago’s public schools.”
Rather than relying on estimates, as the state school bureaucracy did, the Consortium carefully analyzed individual student records.
As the political leaders ranging from President Bush to the nation’s governors join with private-sector leaders like Bill Gates in seeking to put high schools on the front burner of education reform, they will need to determine if the reality of low graduation rates is masked as cleverly in other urban school systems as they have been in Chicago. The first step toward constructive change may well be an honest accounting by the stewards of public education.
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