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Lost in the political war, modest but real grad rate concerns

The accelerating 2009 mayoral campaign is distracting from real information inside an audit of city graduation rates released by the city comptroller’s office today. In fact, the audit is neither as damning as Bill Thompson Jr., the comptroller and mayoral hopeful, is claiming — nor as unequivocally rosy as the Bloomberg administration says.

Thompson said the audit suggests that principals and teachers responded to pressure to raise graduation rates by falsifying student records. “The New York City Department of Education has become the Enron of American education, showing the gains and hiding the losses,” he said at a press conference today.

But the audit found no evidence of tampering. Thompson’s declaration about fudging numbers came in remarks to reporters, not the official audit. “Is it just about sloppy bookkeeping or sloppy record-keeping? I don’t think so,” he said. He added, “This is a case where you can read between the lines.”

The audit also concludes that only 2 out of 206 randomly selected graduates, or 1%, did not deserve their diplomas. That’s quite different than the 10% figure being widely reported. Auditors initially challenged 19 graduates, or 10%, but threw out the concerns about 17 of them after school officials provided documents showing they earned their diplomas. And 11 of the 19 had overall grade averages of 80% or better, according to the audit.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s re-election campaign sniped at the report even before Thompson formally released it, issuing a statement from Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s spokesman, calling the report “phony” and a politicization of the comptroller’s office. School officials joined in the attack, saying in interviews that the audit actually validates their reported graduation rate, despite Thompson’s political remarks.

In fact, the audit does raise questions about the way schools decide who to graduate and, especially, the records they keep to document the process.

The audit sheds light on a process called “annualization,” which allows schools to override one failed course grade with a pass grade achieved in a second semester. The process varies from school to school, according to the audit. The audit reports that one Bronx high school requires students to score 75% or higher in the second semester in order to override the first semester failing grade, while another requires just a 65% grade.

Many schools also keep weak records of changes to students’ grades, which the audit found are common. Four of 10 schools that the comptroller’s office visited could not produce the official reports tracking grade-changes, telling auditors that they threw the forms out. And of 274 students whose transcripts the comptroller sampled, 90, or 33%, had had at least one change made. “The changes generally reflected improvements in students’ grades; some of them resulted in students passing classes that they were previously recorded as having failed,” the audit said.

The comptroller’s office also found questionable changes made to transcripts. One graduate, for instance, had seven grade changes made to his transcript on two days during the month he graduated, June 2007. The audit says:

“Five of the changes involved adding five grades of ‘CR’ for Spanish 1 through 5, all supposedly earned during the spring 2007 term. Another sampled student’s transcript was updated in June 2007, shortly before graduation, to change two failing grades of 55 to 65, one for a class taken in the fall of 2006 term and one for a class taken in the spring 2007 term.”

Another accusation Thompson made tonight on NY1 bears clarification. He accused schools of giving students multiple credits for passing just a single course. A student might pass English 101, for instance, and then get three credits for that course — as if they had also passed English 102 and English 103. But their transcript would also report that the student failed English 102.

The accusation is muted by documents provided by the Department of Education, which show that schools included in the audit mostly gave multiple credits for gym, band, and advisory courses. When an English course was coded twice, the course was “non-sequential,” and one course occurred during summer school. Calling the courses 101, 102, and 103 as if they follow a sequence seems unfair.

Read the full audit here.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly summarized the kinds of courses for which the audit found students received multiple credits. I’ve uploaded a full spreadsheet detailing all 39 cases identified by the audit here. The Department of Education provided the spreadsheet.

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