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States brace for grad rate dips as formula changes

States are bracing for plummeting high school graduation rates as they dump flawed measurement formulas that undercount dropouts and produce inflated results.

Education wonks long have suspected the statistics used to determine how their neighborhood high school is faring can be figured using various formulas that produce wildly different results. Now, many states, including Nevada, could see numbers fall by as many as 20 percentage points.

Liz Utrup, a U.S. Education Department spokeswoman, said graduation rate numbers soon will appear to decrease “across the board” as states move to a uniform calculation that requires them to track each student individually, giving a more accurate count of how many actually finish high school.

“Through this uniform method, states are raising the bar on data standards and simply being more honest,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.

Most states are required to convert to the new calculation this year, but the number won’t count as part of federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks until the 2012-13 school year. Schools that consistently miss those measures face sanctions.

Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault said state officials will convert to the standardized system Dec. 15. The new calculation for graduation rates will be used for the 2011 graduating class, he said. Rheault expects graduation rates statewide to fall.

“We hope it doesn’t drop much below 60 percent,” Rheault said, noting the state’s graduation rate in 2009 was 71 percent. “We’re looking at a 10 percent drop, but that’s just a guess at this point.”

Michigan had a nearly 10 percentage point fall when it made the switch to the new formula in 2007. About half of states are not yet using the new calculation.

Florida’s graduation rate remained stable, at 79 percent, when it adopted the new formula in the 2009-10 school year. It would have been nearly two points higher under the old calculation.

In Kansas, the graduation rate is expected to tumble from 89 percent to 80 percent, with one district anticipating a 20-point drop. Georgia said its overall rate, now at 80 percent, could plummet about 15 percentage points.

“We’re certainly concerned no matter what with that number under 100 percent,” said Kelly Smith, superintendent of Belle Plaine schools in Minnesota . “The new system isn’t changing what we’re doing in our schools, and we need to get that point across.”

Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for Georgia’s Department of Education, said that while he worries the public might think high numbers of students are suddenly failing to finish school, the new formula could produce “a more accurate picture of how many of our students are actually finishing high school with a diploma.”

Rheault agreed, saying the new method will make state-by-state comparisons more fair. But he said there will never be a completely standard calculation because states still have different requirements for graduation.

Nevada students must pass proficiency exams in math, reading, writing and science to earn a diploma. Rheault said 28 other states don’t have such a requirement.

Nevada also requires students to complete 22.5 credits to graduate, but that requirement varies from state to state.

Rheault said the new formula also could ding urban districts, such as Clark County. Schools will have to track individual students. Those who leave the system and can’t be accounted for might be counted as dropouts. Rheault said that will hurt districts with high student transiency rates, such as Clark, which had a graduation rate of 68 percent in 2009.

Sue Daellenbach, the Clark County School District’s assistant superintendent of assessment and accountability, projected the graduation rate could fall between 15 and 20 percentage points.

A calculation method used by about half the states last year works like this: If a school had 100 graduates and 10 students who dropped out from their freshmen to senior year, 100 would be divided by 110, giving the school a graduation rate of 90.9 percent.

Schools weren’t dinged if students took more than four years to graduate. When students disappeared, they often were classified as transfers, though some had dropped out. Many schools weren’t required to document that transfers showed up somewhere else.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, used the National Governors Association to push for graduation rate changes while he led Virginia from 2002 to 2006. His motivation was a desire to see how his state stacked up.

Virginia was boasting 90 percent or better graduation rates , but that dropped to 81 when the new formula was adopted in 2008.

The U.S. Department of Education settled on a formula similar to the governors’: the number of graduates in a given year, divided by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier. Also, schools must document transfer students, or they artificially will deflate the graduation rate.

Schools weren’t necessarily being subversive in the way they calculated their rates . Many states used imperfect formulas because they couldn’t track students who moved, which is being fixed with the addition of new state-level systems that identification numbers to each student.

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Antonio Planas and Christine Armario of The Associated Press in Miami contributed to this report.

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