Comptroller Questions City's Graduation Rates

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Mayor Bloomberg has made improving the city's public schools a central theme of his mayoralty and his bid for a third term. But one of his Democratic rivals, Comptroller Bill Thompson, is now questioning Bloomberg's track record.

The Comptroller's office released a withering audit of the city's graduation rates. The report sampled graduates from the class of 2007, in a way that was supposed to be statistically representative of the city. Thompson called the NYC Department of Education "the Enron of education, showing the gains and hiding the losses."

Out of 197 graduates, 36 took the same major subject classes two or more times and received credit for each passing grade. One student failed English 3, for example, but passed English 4 twice and received a credit for each course. Another received two credits for passing Global History 1 two times but this same student didn't take Global History 4.

The audit also found 19 graduates whose transcripts were incomplete. The Department of Education was eventually able to confirm that 17 of those students really did meet graduation requirements based on evidence from their schools. As for receiving credit despite taking the same class twice, the Department's response to the auditors said "what the Comptroller largely identified were repeated course codes, not repeats of the same class."

But Thompson said those answers didn't clear up one big concern:

"There are a number of questions as to what the real graduation rate is. And I don't think that, given the level of documentation with the Department of Education, given the level of documentation on the school level, I'm not sure exactly what the graduation rate is."

The state found the city's four year graduation rate for 2007 was 52 percent; in 2008 it went up to 56 percent.

Thompson's office also had trouble tracking down students classified as having been discharged (meaning sent to another school or state), suggesting the drop-out rate may be higher than reported. The Department of Education provided information about most of the students' whereabouts to prove they hadn't dropped out. And the audit found evidence of schools changing students' transcripts shortly before graduation, giving them higher grades and showing that they had passed classes they were previously recorded as having failed. Out of those 197 sampled graduates, grades were changed to the transcripts of 42 of them in June of 2007. The audit states that "some of the grade changes were made for courses taken in previous years."

One could wonder if principals feel more pressure to raise graduation rates in this age of high-stakes testing and performance bonuses. But it's no shocker that schools creatively try to find ways to help students graduate. The Department of Education responded that schools are encouraged to independently evaluate each student's progress toward and eligibility for a diploma - meaning records are updated toward the end of the year to include makeup work and summer school.

When asked if things are really any different now than when Thompson was president of the old Board of Education back in the 1990s, the Comptroller said "things were a lot tighter" in the past. However, the Comptroller's office says it has no audits of previous graduation rates from Thompson's tenure or any other time.

As a Democrat seeking his party's nomination for this year's mayoral election, the fact that Thompson would release such a report right now does raise questions about the timing. And the Bloomberg campaign issued a swift and unusually sharp response within minutes of the audit's release. It accused the Comptroller of politicizing his office with "phony attacks." The campaign also noted that graduation rates are higher now than they were when Thompson led the Board of Education.

The Comptroller's office - and not the Thompson campaign - issued this retort:

“It is absolutely shameful – but fully expected – that a representative of Mayor Bloomberg would hurl accusations questioning the integrity of the New York City Comptroller’s Office,” said Communications Director Jeff Simmons. “The Mayor and his representatives should certainly be aware that all audits conducted by this office are done in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards."

UPDATE: The Department of Education notes that in 99 percent of the cases cited by the comptroller's office, the students did meet graduation or discharge requirements once their records were clarified.

The principals union also weighs in. A spokeswoman says, "The comptroller makes some good suggestions for improving a system that is already better than the system required by the state." She adds that "Any suggestion that our school administrators are not diligent is unfounded."