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Bills will hold DOE's feet to fire on discharge, graduation rates

The City Council is requiring the education department to provide more transparent reporting to support claims for two of its signature achievements: higher graduation rates and fewer failing schools.

In the midst of finalizing next year’s city budget, the council managed to pass two bills that target the Department of Education’s bookkeeping. One of them requires the department to disclose more detailed information about students who leave the system without graduation. The second mandates the release of information about students who do not graduate when their high schools close.

Under the first bill, the DOE will be forced to provide more detailed data about student discharge rates, which critics say is overused by schools in order to inflate graduation rates. In 2009, Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, released a report that found discharge rates steadily climbed since 2000. That prompted a state audit that concluded the dropout rate was in fact higher than claims made by the DOE.

Out of 88,612 students from the 2004-2008 cohort, 19 percent – or 17,025 – were discharged and 10 percent – or 9,323 – dropped out, according to the audit.

“This bill will for the first time allow us to know what happened to the thousands of students every year who are discharged from high schools,” Haimson said. “It will make it possible to see if they’re honestly reporting discharge rates.

The DOE vehemently disputes many conclusions from the Haimson report and state audit as being misleading. Since 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg entered office, discharge rates declined 2 percent. Haimson, said spokesman Matthew Mittenthal, “was extremely selective in assembling data to make a case against us.”

Under the second bill, the DOE will be required to report on students at phase out schools who don’t accumulate enough credits to graduate when the school shutters. Specifically, it will provide more information about what happens to the fate of students after the school closes. Critics have said that students displaced by these closures drop out at a disproportionately higher rate as a result.

“I have sharply disagreed with the Department of Education’s belief that phasing out schools is an effective educational policy,” said Councilman Al Vann, a sponsor of the bill. “The passage of this legislation will finally provide the Council and stakeholders with important data on how the phasing out of schools truly affects our public school students.”

At a hearing on the proposed laws in January, an official indicated that the DOE would not comply with the law if passed, citing possible violations of student privacy.

Today, however, Mittenthal confirmed that they would “absolutely comply” with the new law. The law calls for the DOE report last year’s data by Feb. 1, 2012.

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