CMS: Graduation-track data wrong

Reports indicating that virtually all students at all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are on track to graduate are wrong, CMS officials acknowledged Friday after repeated questions from the Observer.

Chris Cobitz, the administrator in charge of the school progress reports that CMS released this week, initially stood by the calculations - that more than 99 percent of elementary and middle school students and 98.2 percent of high school students in 2010-11 had never been retained in a grade - despite a high school promotion rate of only 68 percent and a graduation rate just under 74 percent.

But after the Observer sent follow-up questions about contradictory numbers and posted an online story , Cobitz said that the numbers of students "anticipated to graduate on time" for virtually all schools are inaccurate.

He said the numbers came from the wrong column on a spreadsheet, but he could not immediately say what they actually represent.

"It appears to be a number that is somehow associated with the school but has been miscalculated," he said.

The corrected averages for students who have never been held back in a grade are 92 percent for CMS elementary schools, 94 percent for middle schools and 76 percent for high schools, according to a revised report issued Thursday afternoon.

At some schools, the changes are dramatic. West Charlotte High, for instance, went from having 95.8 percent listed as on-track to graduate to 53.2 percent.

CMS is now reviewing all the data on the school progress reports sent home with students and posted online. "We can't have this," Cobitz said.

The reports are part of the board's effort to report on key measures of academic performance, with graduation as the ultimate goal. The data is intended to inform parents and help educators shape improvement strategies for schools.

This year, CMS added the graduation-track data based on the percent of students who had never been retained in a grade. Research has shown that even if those children do better when they repeat a grade, they eventually fall behind and become more likely to drop out.

Cobitz and Chief Information Officer Scott Muri initially defended the extremely high numbers, saying retentions in lower grades are rare in CMS.

The Observer first questioned the numbers on Jan. 13, after CMS posted progress reports for elementary, middle and high schools as a group. Individual school reports were released Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Cobitz said he'd had his staff recheck the numbers and they held up, although he acknowledged they seemed to be contradicted by promotion and graduation rates. He said it's good for schools to err on the side of labeling students on-track so educators will keep pushing them to graduate.

After the Observer suggested other things to check, he said he discovered that the overall percentage had been entered incorrectly, but that individual school listings seemed to be accurate. It was only when he sent the Observer his list of high school percentages - which were dramatically different from what was included in the progress reports - that he realized all the numbers released to the public were wrong.

He said he is not sure how the error occurred, except that "we copiously checked the numbers in the (school progress reports) against the Excel sheets so we know the issue was between running the analysis and getting it into the Excel document." He noted that the staff producing the reports has been cut by five people this year.

Cobitz said the correct numbers provide some good information, but the district is working toward an "at risk" measure that takes more factors into account. "We are working toward a much more sophisticated measure," he said.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer