At a hearing today before the New York City Council’s Education Committee, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged council members to support legislation that would bring much-needed transparency to the city’s system of counting students who leave school without graduating.

The bill under review, Intro 354, would require the New York City Department of Education to regularly report to the City Council on student discharges. The “discharge” system is meant to statistically capture students who leave the school system without a diploma, but whose departure should not necessarily reflect poorly on DOE policy, such as students who move away from New York City. Students who are discharged are not counted as dropouts. From 2000 to 2007, the city’s discharge rate rose by about four percentage points as nearly 150,000 students were discharged from the system.

The DOE does not publicly disclose information on discharges, raising concerns among advocates and education experts that the discharge system is being used to artificially inflate the graduation rate.

“In a school system that depends so heavily on data to drive policy decisions, it is hypocritical and counterproductive to deny the public access to this information,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Greater transparency will allow the public and lawmakers to have confidence that discharge policies are not being used to manipulate graduation rates. It will allow for a serious analysis of students’ educational opportunities and the pressures that lead them to drop out, which will result in better schools.”

In June 2008, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the DOE seeking discharge data – including demographic information about students who are discharged, and the reasons for the discharges – for each school year from 1996 to 2008. The DOE failed to provide any relevant records for the years 1996-2007. In July 2009, the NYCLU filed an identical request for discharge records for the 2008-2009 school year. After a delay of more than a year, the DOE finally provided a spreadsheet containing information about 2008-2009 discharges. According to the data the NYCLU received:

  • The DOE discharged 2,487 students to General Equivalency Diploma (GED) programs; 1,269 were discharged to full time DOE GED programs, 808 went to part time DOE GED programs, and 410 went to full time non-DOE GED programs.
  • The DOE discharged 158 students to parenting programs or for reasons relating to pregnancy or parenting; 116 “voluntarily withdrew” due to pregnancy, and 42 were discharged to DOE programs for pregnant and parenting students.
  • The DOE discharged 5, 614 students to parochial or private schools; 3,224 were in grades six through 12.
  • The DOE discharged 35,597 students for reasons related to family relocation out of New York City; 17,395 were in grades six through 12.

While there are legitimate reasons for discharges, such as moving to another state, advocates are concerned that students who enroll in DOE GED programs are considered discharges and even graduates if they obtain a GED.

“Counting GED recipients as graduates perpetuates the illusion that GEDs and high school diplomas are equal and provides school officials an incentive to push children with the greatest needs out of the classroom and into GED programs,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer, who testified today. “These types of practices mask the educational realities faced by many of our young people.”

Advocates also have long speculated that the incredibly large numbers of students who are reportedly discharged to other school systems each year (private and parochial schools and other districts) may actually include significant numbers of students who should be reported as dropouts.

The NYCLU made the following recommendations in its testimony:

  • Mandate reporting by cohort. The bill should be amended to require discharge reporting by cohort. Obtaining the data by cohort will create a more complete picture of discharge and graduation rates by reporting the outcomes for each entering high school class (cohort) of students. More meaningful trends can be discerned comparing, for instance, the class of 2010 to the class of 2011, rather than students from many different classes who may have been discharged in any particular year.
  • Mandate reporting of all discharge categories. As written, the bill lists examples of discharge categories. The categories listed in the bill reflect some of the more controversial past and present discharge categories, but the bill should be amended to request reports of all discharge and graduation codes.
  • Create an audit mechanism. As with any reporting bill, there are questions about enforcing accurate reporting. Because personnel at each of the 1,600 schools have discretion in selecting discharge codes for students, it may be difficult to judge the accuracy of the information that is reported to the Council. When former Comptroller Bill Thompson audited the discharge and graduation rates in 2009, his office expressed the difficulties in tracking discharges and transfers when each school maintained different sets of records, and some had no relevant records at all. We therefore recommend that the bill require an automatic audit should the reported statistics exceed or fall below certain trigger points.