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State corrects flaw that allowed graduation rate inflation

Clark County’s high school graduation rate might have leaped skyward 10 percentage points last year, but that’s not likely to happen again.

Under direction from the U.S. Department of Education, the state is correcting a flaw in the calculation which the Clark County School District found and exploited in 2013, bolstering its graduation rate by at least 3 percentage points. It pushed the state’s graduation rate up as well — making an 8 percentage-point jump — largely due to gains in the Southern Nevada district, which enrolls the vast majority of Nevada’s students.

The policy change comes less than a month after the Review-Journal showed that Nevada high school graduation rates were being inflated by omitting struggling students from the calculation who transferred into adult education and rarely finished school on time, if at all. Many of those who did finish earned certificates of General Educational Development, or GED certificates, not accepted from freshmen by four-year universities. These students are supposed to be counted as failures under federal regulations, hurting graduation rates. But Clark County and other districts were treating all adult education transfers — exceeding 1,000 in number — as if they had left the system or died, not counting them anywhere.

National policy experts and a federal education department spokesman told the Review-Journal in March that the practice violated federal standards for calculating graduation rates, the barometer most commonly used to gauge the quality of public schools.

State education leaders were quick to act, though. They called on the U.S. Department of Education for guidance and issued a directive to all Nevada school districts April 8 detailing changes that immediately will be made to comply with federal standards.

“If we’re using a rule that the federal government will not accept, I clearly want to know that,” said State Super­intendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga, who inherited the practice that was in place when he was hired in August.

The state has “worked closely” with the U.S. Department of Education and “assured” it that all appropriate students will be included in graduation rates for 2014, said Dorie Nolt, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, on Wednesday.

According to state officials, schools won’t have to recalculate their 2013 graduation rates. If they did, graduation rates would worsen because the calculation method only had a positive effect.

To explain how schools will adhere to the methods explained in federal regulation, it’s best to start with the calculation itself.

All U.S. public schools are supposed to use a simple calculation that tracks students through four years of high school. Divide the number of students graduating with a “regular high school diploma” by the freshman enrollment for that class.

Students who transferred from another school are factored in. Students who don’t earn a diploma in four years — whether they dropped out, didn’t meet requirements or earned a GED certificate — are counted as nongraduates, remaining in the total class count and dragging down the graduation rate.

Schools can remove transfers from the books only if they leave the country, die or enroll in another “program that culminates in the award of a regular high school diploma.” Clark County and other Nevada districts were sending students into alternative programs and removing them from schools’ books without picking them up anywhere else to confirm whether they graduated. They basically disappeared.

The disappearing act has ended, according to state Deputy Superintendent for Student Achievement Steve Canavero.

First off, adult education transfers won’t be lumped together any more but will be split into two groups. Those students leaving their regular high schools to seek a GED certificate or entering another high school equivalency program automatically will be marked as dropouts, as is spelled out clearly in federal regulations.

Those students entering alternative schools to seek the state’s Adult High School Diploma, which meets the federal definition of a successful graduate, will be followed, Canavero said. If they don’t earn a diploma on time, they will be marked a failure, just like any other student. They will be counted either in the graduation rate for the alternative school or their original high school. That detail hasn’t been worked out yet, he said.

It’s unknown how this change will affect graduation rates, said Canavero and Leslie Arnold, Clark County’s assistant superintendent of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement. Based on the track record of adult education transfers, it likely would lower graduation rates.

Not one of the 982 Clark County high school seniors who transferred into adult education earned an adult high school diploma within four years in 2013, according to district and state records. If those unsuccessful students had been factored into the calculation, the district’s graduation rate would have been 69 percent, down 3 percentage points from what was reported.

The district didn’t track adult education transfers for the classes of 2011 and 2012, but not one transfer earned an adult high school diploma on time, according to reports produced by the Nevada Department of Education.

While the change might hurt graduation rates, it will make them more accurate, according to Maria Ferguson and Phillip Lovell, the national policy experts who condemned the state and particularly Clark County for manipulating the system last year to boost success rates. These policy experts now commend the state for acknowledging the problem and correcting it.

“I take my hat off to the state,” said Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “I’m kind of impressed.”

“It is surprising to the see the state responding so quickly,” said Lovell, vice president of federal advocacy for the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which promotes responsible school reform.

But anyone with a modest understanding of statistics would have known that Clark County’s 10 percentage-point increase and Nevada’s 8 percentage-point increase are “too good to be true,” he said.

“Either they’re doing something really right or something tricky,” Lovell said. “And it’s hard to do something that right.”

Contact Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.

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