Graduation rates below state average

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles exploring the graduation rates and what they mean for local schools. Coming Friday: Why are students not graduating on time? Coming Saturday: How are schools held accountable?

Graduation rates at all three high schools in Pike County fell short of state averages for 2011-2012, and superintendents from both city and county school districts say they are concerned.

The average graduation rate for high schools in the state of Alabama for 2011-2012 was 75 percent, according to information released Tuesday from the state Department of Education. Locally, only one school came close to that average: Goshen High School, at 71 percent. The rate for Pike County High School, the second school in the Pike County system, was 64 percent.

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The rate at Charles Henderson High School, the only school in the Troy City system, was 58 percent, a startling low number that Superintendent Lee Hicks said he believes is incorrect.

“We believe we have identified some errors with the reporting process and are working with the state (department of education) to revise those numbers,” said Hicks. “

We believe they may come up – maybe around 66 percent – but even if they do are we happy with that? Absolutely not.”

The cohort graduate rate, first used in 2010-2011, tracks a group of students ¬from ninth-grade enrollment through 12th grade and measures the number of students who graduate on time with their class.

The formula used to determine the rate essentially adds in any students who transfer into the class during the four-year period and subtracts any students who transfer out of the class during that period who enrolls in another school. Students who drop out, fail a grade, miss a year of school for personal or health issues, or who seek GEDs are not counted as graduates and negatively impact the graduation rate calculation.

“This is more of a lockstep measure,” said Michael Sibley, director of communications for the state department of education. “You’re judged by the people who start the ninth grade together and who graduate the 12th grade together, with no exceptions.”

Prior to the adoption of the cohort rate by the National Governors Association, states used a variety of measures and criteria in calculating graduation and/or dropout rates, making true comparisons difficult. However, because of the “more rigid definition” the new formula caused rates to drop for many states, including Alabama. “We went from the 80-something percent down to the low 70s,” Sibley said. “But it’s better to do it that way and have a real, natural comparable rate.”

Administrators at both school systems expressed concerns about the formula used to determine the cohort rate, particularly as schools are held accountable for factors beyond their control.

“I think we’re doing a much better job with graduating our students than we’ve done in the past,” said Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent of the Pike County Schools. “We’re heading the right direction, but we’re never going to be completely satisfied with those numbers.”

Bazzell said one of the “frustrations” with the graduation rate measure is that it’s one over which districts have the least control. “Kids drop out or fail to graduate for reasons beyond the control of the school system,” he said, citing socio-economic struggles; health issues; or other concerns.

The challenge for Pike County Schools is to identify the at-risk or struggling students early in the process. “We try to identify those students and provide supportive services … at any point, any grade when a student starts struggling we identify them and try to provide special assistance. But a lot of times, it’s not an academic issue.”

Hicks echoed Bazzell’s concerns. “Under the old graduation rate formula, we just had to make sure your son graduated,” he said. Now, the cohort formula measures if students graduate on time with their class.

“What happens if you have a kid who has cancer and can’t come to school for a year, or if you have kids who fail a grade and have to repeat it?” Hicks said. “There are so many ‘what-ifs.’”

Added to those concerns for Troy City Schools are errors in data reporting that Hicks said skewed the rates reported this week. “We basically had some students who were counted twice (as drop-outs) between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 reporting years,” he said. “We’ve identified those and communicated with the state department … We feel better after our conversation that the 58 percent will change, perhaps more closer to our internal tabulation of 66 percent, but we’ll have to wait and see how it all works out.”

Sibley said the state department has an appeal process, but he could not speak specifically to the Troy City Schools’ case. “I’m not sure what the timeline is,” he said.

Regardless of the final rate determination, Hicks said the Troy City Schools must find better ways to serve the students are not graduating. “We will be putting several things before the board to address this,” he said.