School & District Management

New York City’s Graduation Rate Questioned

By Catherine Gewertz — July 21, 2009 2 min read
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New York City’s comptroller is taking the city to task over the way it grants diplomas to high school students.

In an audit released today, William C. Thompson Jr.—who’s also a candidate for mayor, keep in mind—finds that schools keep sloppy records of whether students have actually met graduation requirements.

An alert he released to the press before a news conference today said the audit found that high school graduation rates “may not have improved as much as the City claims.”

The audit finds that of 197 randomly sampled graduates, the transcripts for 9.6 percent “did not appear to have evidence” that students had completed the required courses or exams. Documentation later provided to the comptroller by the city “appears to support the graduation status” in all but two of the examined cases. It wasn’t clear to the comptroller, though, that the schools had actually reviewed these documents before issuing diplomas. Some schools awarded students credits for passing the same course two or more times, the audit said.

The audit criticizes the department of education for permitting high schools “considerable authority with minimal oversight” in making graduation decisions, and recommends better internal controls.

It’s hardly the first time that Mr. Thompson, a former city school board president, has scuffled with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s up for reelection in November. In the testimony he offered in February to the state assembly’s education committee, which was considering the mayoral-control law, he ticked off a list of failings he said his office’s audits have found with the department. And he said he was concerned about “manipulation” of education data by the administration, and advocated an outside audit of test scores and graduation-rate data.

The New York City Public Advocate’s Office has raised questions about the schools’ graduation data, too.

Bloomberg, who has staked his record in no small part on improving schools, attacked the comptroller’s audit through his campaign, saying Thompson was “politicizing the comptroller’s office with phony attacks,” and that he should be “explaining his own failed record on education.” The campaign laid out figures showing the graduation rate rising from 50.8 percent in 2002 to 66 percent in 2008.

Let the Big Apple campaign roll on.

UPDATE: The city department of ed released a statement saying that the “rhetoric of the Comptroller’s press conference doesn’t match the central finding of his audit staff.” The department rebuts some of the key points of the audit in the report’s addendum.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.