08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bloomberg & Thompson's Dropout Duel

If schools still offered courses in rhetoric, Comptroller Bill Thompson and the Bloomberg campaign would have earned high marks for their exchanges yesterday over a comptroller's audit of the city's graduation rate.

Thompson told NY1 that the city Department of Education was "the Enron of public education in this country." The mayor's re-election campaign fired back: "Instead of politicizing the comptroller's office with phony attacks, Mr. Thompson should be explaining his own failed record on education."

Beyond the angry words, Thompson raised some good questions and the Department of Education offered several legitimate answers about the all-important graduation rate. But some of the biggest concerns about the city's high schools were left untouched.

Thompson's audit found that almost 10 percent of a sample of 200 graduation records didn't show evidence that a student had actually met graduation requirements, that some student records were changed right before or even after graduation, that students were allowed to pass a full year's course even if they had failed the first half, that schools sometimes gave credit for taking courses multiple times, that schools didn't always do a good job tracking "discharges" (students who leave school but aren't counted as drop-outs because, theoretically, they go to a different system) and that about a fifth of students who were deemed "still enrolled" after their fourth year appeared to have stopped attending school.

In most of the cases involving incomplete transcripts, the DOE provided the comptroller with records to indicate that graduation criteria had been met, and points out that it's not unreasonable for schools to make a lot of changes to student transcripts during the rush at the end of the school year. DOE also noted that it didn't move precipitously to count still-enrolled students as dropouts because it wanted to keep the door open to them returning to finish their diploma. And while the comptroller found that the files of 14 out of 80 discharged students did not initially contain sufficient evidence that they had not simply dropped out, the audit admits that the DOE late provided that evidence in all but one case.

Overall, the audit's critique of the DOE is significantly less sweeping than Thompson's comments on it, which included a call for Chancellor Joel Klein to be fired.

This is not a new issue: In 2005, the graduation rate was a bone of contention between Bloomberg and challenger Freddy Ferrer. And Thompson can't expect to talk about schools and not get questions about his time as the president of the Board of Education (that's the "failed record" the Bloomberg campaign referred to).

But the Bloomberg camp can't blame anyone but itself for politicizing the dropout rate, since graduation statistics have figured prominently in all the Bloomberg ads and mailers to which voters have been subjected so far this year. Team Bloomberg even amped up the numbers for yesterdays counterattack: While Bloomberg and Klein had in June announced a 2008 graduation rate of 60.7 percent—according to state criteria that are supposed to be the gold standard now—the campaign reverted to the city's self-calculated rate of 66 percent.

The fact is, a thorough debate about the graduation rate is in order. But it ought to also cover some territory that the Thompson and Bloomberg camps skipped, like:

What about English Language Learners? According to the State Board of Regents data on the class of 2008, only 33 percent of English Language Learners in New York City graduated. While English Language Learners obviously face unique challenges in school, other cities did a far better job. Syracuse graduated 55 percent of its ELL students, Buffalo 54 percent, Yonkers 43 percent and Rochester 41 percent. Are there lessons those towns could teach, or are the populations too different?

Why so many discharges? Skeptics have long suspected that some of the students the DOE counts as "discharges" are actually dropouts. Whether that's true or not, why are an increasing share of students leaving a school system that is supposedly getting better? The discharge rate in 2007 was the highest among the years covered by data on the DOE website. In 2000, 17.3 percent were discharged. That rose to 20 percent in 2003, down to 18.9 percent in 2004 and then up to 20.8 percent in 2007. Maybe parents are getting priced out of the city and moving to suburban schools. Maybe families are giving up on failing schools. But the effect on some schools is dramatic. Louis D. Brandeis High School, for example, lost 40 percent of its class of 2007. Adlai Stevenson discharged 60 percent of its 2007 class. Where are they all going?

What happens when the local diploma disappears? Of the class of 2008 graduates, 73 percent obtained a Regents or Advanced Regents diploma. Another 27 percent received a less rigorous local diploma. The state is phasing these local diplomas out. When the class starting 10th grade this fall graduates in the summer of 2012, it will be the first to do so without the option of a local diploma. While the share of local diplomas has decreased, it is still significant. The effect of the local diploma vanishing on the graduation rate could be enormous: Without the local diplomas, the 2008 graduation rate might have been closer to 45 percent than the 60.7 percent reported.

So the graduation rate is almost certain to drop, for what seems like a good reason—higher standards. Yet those higher standards might prevent thousands of New Yorkers from obtaining their diploma, a key tool to a more successful life. What to do about the students caught between high systemic standards and personal failure is a challenge the next mayor should talk about. As a political football, the graduation rate is about to lose a little air.