Saturday, August 02, 2008

Crucial Data on Graduates Is Elusive

Published: July 15, 2008

The Class of 2008 has already tossed aside caps and gowns for swimsuits and tank tops. The Class of 2009 has begun dreaming of proms, diplomas and exit strategies. But the public has yet to learn what percentage of New York State’s Class of 2007 actually graduated from high school.

Blame the state’s new data system, which is expected to cost $39.4 million over six years. Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state’s Education Department, acknowledged that the system had been “not completely successful” in uploading and processing information from New York’s 695 school districts. He said the move to a single data repository had “caused a number of problems.”

“Those problems are being corrected now,” Mr. Dunn said, adding that the state was in the process of verifying numbers with school districts and expected to release 2007 graduation rates by the end of the month. (Rates for 2008, he said, would be released in February.)

Of all the statistics that increasingly figure into public debate about schools, graduation rates are widely considered among the most crucial indicators of whether a system is working. They are watched with particular urgency in New York City, where the low but slowly climbing graduation rate was a contentious topic during the 2005 re-election campaign of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

For years, the city and state have used different criteria to calculate the graduation rate, and the discrepancy has caused tension among city and state officials and confusion among parents. In 2006, the state said that 50 percent of the city’s seniors had graduated, while the city said 59 percent.

(The state announced 2006 graduation rates in April 2007 — just as the Class of 2007 was suffering late-stage senioritis.)

The new data system was supposed to resolve those differences, with officials in Albany and New York City agreeing to release a single number. Or, as it has turned out, to not release it for a long time.

“Asking the public to be patient here is simply not an answer,” said Merryl H. Tisch, a member of the State Board of Regents, who described the delay as “frustrating and intolerable.”

“I think the public should frankly demand more timely testing results and more timely graduation data,” she said, “because, after all, they’re being asked to invest an enormous amount of money in the system.”

Ms. Tisch said she faulted the state’s Education Department, some local school districts that failed to properly report their data, and McGraw-Hill, whose Grow Network subsidiary is responsible for part of the new data system and is expected to receive $13.3 million over six years for that work.

Kelley Carpenter, a McGraw-Hill spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Grow Network was primarily responsible for the “reporting part of this system” but was “not involved in data entry and collection.”

“We will continue to work with the state to generate reports as data is made available,” she said.

David Cantor, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education, said the city had given the state the required information in a timely fashion. “Obviously, we’d have liked the numbers sooner,” he said of the graduation rates, adding, “It’s very tough to run a data system of this size smoothly the first time.”

New York, which began creating the new data system several years ago, is among a number of states that have invested millions recently to computerize school information, to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law and, more broadly, as part of an increased focus on educational accountability.

New York’s new system assigns every student in the state an identification number so they can be tracked throughout their educational careers, even if they switch schools or districts. The system keeps track of test scores and attendance as well as graduation numbers.

Mr. Dunn, the State Education Department spokesman, said that the problems leading to the late release of the graduation rates were not specific to McGraw-Hill’s Grow Network, but that the company had “a share” of responsibility.

“There’s just an enormous amount of new information that’s moving through here at all areas,” Mr. Dunn said. “The new volume has created challenges, from people having to fill out different forms to different verifications and all of the multiple steps involved.”

In an e-mail message to school superintendents this month, Jean C. Stevens, an associate state education commissioner, pointed a finger at school districts, saying that while calculating graduation rates, the state had identified many districts with possible data-reporting problems. “Many districts may have misreported graduates,” she wrote. “In some cases no graduates were reported.”

Betsy Gotbaum, the New York City public advocate, noted that the city Department of Education’s own $80 million data system, developed by I.B.M. and called ARIS, has been criticized by principals and teachers as cumbersome and difficult to use, even as parents have questioned its hefty price tag.

“We have already seen with ARIS here in the city how expensive and flashy computer systems are turning out to be clunky and flawed,” Ms. Gotbaum said in a statement. “The longer we have to wait for these data systems to produce results, the more skeptical people become.”

Mr. Cantor said the city was improving ARIS. “While it did not come out of the box perfect,” he said, “we got an awful lot of information to a large number of people.”

Jane Hirschmann, the founder and a co-chairwoman of Time Out From Testing, an antitesting group, said the information delay was “just typical” of how the city and state education departments “are spending our taxpayer money with absolutely no results.”

“It would be much better to put money in the classroom and keep track of what’s really important,” Ms. Hirschmann said. “This is the administration of testing and data collection. As far as parents are concerned, we don’t buy it. We don’t think our children are better because of it.”

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