When the graduation rates come out for the Class of 2011, Prince George’s County and Baltimore city schools might be in for a particularly harsh awakening.
For the first time, Maryland is employing a new way to calculate the graduation rate, for federal accountability purposes. Although the state has started publishing the rates using the new formula, the change still might be met with surprise.
For the state’s high school Class of 2010, for example, the state’s official graduation rate was listed as 86.53 percent, while the graduation rate as it will be calculated in future years is 80.66 percent.
The discrepancy between the two percentages, using the 69,195 potential graduates from that class, represents 4,058 students larger than the entire enrollments of the public school systems in Kent (2,184) and Somerset (2,898) counties.
“The difference now is that we track a student’s experience all the way through school, and it means that we track across summers into the next school year,” said Leslie Wilson, an assistant superintendent with Maryland’s Department of Education. “So it’s really requiring the school systems to keep up-to-date, really good records of who they’ve got enrolled, who’s not enrolled.”
The “Leaver” method, which had been used, divides the number of graduates in a school year by the number of high school dropouts that year plus the number of graduates. So if a school system had 500 graduates and 50 dropouts, 500 would be divided by 550, for a graduation rate of 90.9 percent.
But the Leaver method does not track what happens to a single class starting in ninth grade as it progresses toward a four-year graduation target what most consider a more important statistic, Wilson said. It also historically undercounts students who drop out because they have been difficult to track.
States also had a strong political incentive to use the Leaver method because it produced higher graduation rates than did other formulas, said Christopher Swanson, vice president for research and development at the Bethesda-based Education Research Center, a division of the nonprofit organization Editorial Projects in Education, which also publishes Education Week magazine.
“There is a lot of consensus that the Leaver rate is a problem,” he said.
From 1996 to 2010, Maryland’s graduation rate, using the Leaver calculation, increased 7.5 percent. State law required the new graduation rate, called the “adjusted four-year cohort,” to be used for the 2011 class for accountability, one year before the requirement to do so under federal regulations that were approved in 2008.
The new rate divides the number of graduates by the number of ninth-graders expected to graduate, based on the size of the initial ninth-grade class. It takes into account students who transfer in, transfer out or die.
In this graduation rate, dropouts in a given class remain part of the number of students expected to graduate, meaning they are accounted for at the beginning and over four years.
All Maryland public school students received unique student ID numbers starting in the 2007-2008 school year to help the state calculate the new graduation rate (although the state began applying the new formula retroactively for unofficial comparisons).
Based on whether a student progresses, transfers or drops out, a code is assigned to the student that is later used for calculating graduation and dropout statistics.
Swanson said historically large urban school systems have experienced the biggest declines after the change from Leaver to the cohort method, although all school systems likely will see some decline. There are no funding consequences for a decline in the graduation rate or an increase in the dropout rate following the switch from the Leaver to the cohort method.
The difference between the Leaver and cohort methods at Prince George’s County Public Schools for the Class of 2010 was nearly 11 percentage points 84.27 percent versus 73.30 percent, the largest gap of any Maryland public school system. The difference for Baltimore City Public Schools between the two graduation rates was smaller 65.9 percent versus 60.58 percent.
“Schools must now document the reason for any withdrawal,” A. Duane Arbogast, chief academic officer for Prince George’s schools, said in a statement. “This new system will result in a lower, but a more accurate, rate.
“In terms of communicating to parents, schools will continue to work closely with parents to ensure that students will stay in school. That will not change.”
Under the data system, schools will be able to “flag” students who show early warning signs of dropping out, such as poor attendance in middle school or reading difficulties in fourth grade, Wilson said.
She said these and other initiatives early in high school are intended to help school systems intervene, because most dropouts leave high school in their freshman or sophomore year.
“People will notice a difference,” Wilson said. “We’ve been trying to prepare people for it over time.”