Educators: New graduation rates paint partial picture

Sunday, December 11, 2011

SIKESTON -- A new method for calculating high school graduation rates may allow states to be uniformly compared, but some local educators caution that the numbers are slightly misleading.

Andy Comstock, assistant superintendent of secondary education and professional development for Sikeston R-6 School District, said graduation rates are important, but it's also important to remember these new rates reflect only students who graduate high school within four years.

"It doesn't give the total number of students who earn high school diplomas that school year," Comstock noted.

Beginning this month the new, four-year public high school graduation rates are featured on school district's online report cards through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"The new four-year rate provides an additional way of looking at our graduation data," said Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro. "We recognize that not all students will graduate from high school in four years, but by using data effectively, we can identify the characteristics of students who may be at risk or may take longer to succeed. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure each child will graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and a career."

The U.S. Department of Education requires all states to report graduation data using a specified calculation, which -- for the first time -- will allow rates to be uniformly compared across the nation. Historically, states have calculated graduation rates using varying methods, creating inconsistent data from one state to the next.

Momentum for all states to produce a comparable four-year graduation rate began in 2005 with the leadership of the National Governors' Association. Governors of all 50 states made a commitment to implement a common method for calculating each state's high school graduation rate by signing the Graduation Counts Compact.

The new "four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate" is based on when a student first becomes a freshman. The rate is calculated using the number of students who graduate within four years and includes adjustments for student transfers.

Missouri's current graduation rate calculation includes students who take more than four years to graduate from high school.

The new calculation is expected to reflect a slightly lower percentage nationwide than is seen with current calculation methods, according to DESE. However, both rates are useful, say state education officials. Using the new four-year calculation, the 2011 statewide rate is preliminarily reported at 79.8 percent compared to 86.4 percent calculated by the state's traditional graduation rate.

East Prairie High School's 2011 graduation rate dropped from 86.2 to 69.6 with the new calculation.

But, like the Sikeston administrator, East Prairie's counselor Lisa Wright said the numbers only show part of the story. She said she thinks not including students who graduate after four years is unfair to both students and the schools, which often provide programs to help students with credit recovery.

"We have an alternative school and implemented an A-Plus computer program, and it helps our students catch up on their credits, Wright said. "We also have the classes on the main campus, and I have had several students who have been successful with that," White said.

One student, in particular, White said, has made up many credits because of the programs offered, but because she is slower in achieving her credits, she wouldn't be counted as a graduate with the new formula, White said.

"We have taken steps to address the needs of those students who have -- for some reason -- messed up a semester or a year so they can catch up on credits. It's so hard to get that diploma in their hand, and I feel that (the new rate) is not acknowledging the extra mile we go through to help them," White said.

With the new calculation, Sikeston's 2011 graduation rate is 90.2 -- slightly lower than the previous rate of 92.7.

"We focus on just getting them to walk across the stage to receive that diploma instead of whether or not they finish high school in four years," Comstock said.

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