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Report: Graduation rate in Utah is falling

Published June 9, 2009 6:07 am

Study finds 72.2% graduated in '06, but state says the rate that year was 83%.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah, which once claimed the highest high school graduation rate in the country, is now falling behind other states, according to an Education Week report released today.

The Beehive State ranked 26th in the nation for its high school graduation rate in 2006, according to Diplomas Count 2009, an annual report released by the magazine and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Utah's 2006 graduation rate of 72.2 percent still hovered above the national average of 69.2 percent, but the state's overall ranking plummeted, according to the report.

Utah ranked eighth in the nation for its 2005 graduation rates, and the year before that it ranked first. The state's graduation rate also dipped from 78.6 percent in 2005, according to the report. The average national graduation rate dropped as well.

State Associate Superintendent Brenda Hales, however, disputed the report's findings. She said the report was filled with inaccuracies and she doesn't agree with the methodology the researchers used.

"The reason that concerns me is because we take graduation very seriously," Hales said. "We're not going to be satisfied until every student graduates from high school and not just graduates, but graduates college ready or career ready. It's probably one of the most important statistics we follow."

The state calculated a graduation rate of 83 percent for 2006, and the feds calculated a rate of 78.6 for that year.

Many Utah high school students are graduating this month.

Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which publishes Education Week , said none of the numbers is technically incorrect. The rates are different, he said, because the state, federal government and research center all use different formulas to calculate them.

Hales said the state's rate is most accurate, especially after the state switched to a new formula starting with the 2007 class. Under the state's new method, the state tracks each student through high school using an identification number. The state then divides the graduates in a class by the graduates plus dropouts.

Amy Hightower, research center deputy director, said the research center's method is more of an estimate that doesn't necessarily account for all the details of a state's system, such as whether states count as graduates those who earn GEDs (general educational development diplomas), those who repeat grades or transfer students.

"The strength of our method is we can apply it uniformly to every district and every state in country," Hightower said. "What we aren't able to do is dig beneath the rate to understand some of the nuances that may be at play."

Now, because states use different formulas to calculate graduation rates, the research center's formula is one of the few ways to compare states.

That, however, will likely change in 2010-11, when all states will be required by the federal government to use the same formula.

In a bright spot of the report, Jordan School District in 2006 had the third highest graduation rate among the nation's 50 largest districts. Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold attributed the district's success to quality teachers, counselors, after-school tutoring and support, strict attendance policies and early intervention. According to the report, the district's graduation rate in 2006 was 78.9 percent.

The ranking, however, actually represented a drop for the district from its No. 2 spot in last year's report.

Newbold said he's not sure why Jordan's ranking dropped while other districts' rankings rose, but he said it's impressive the district and Utah have done as well as they have considering the state's large class sizes and relatively low per student spending.

"I could certainly predict that if student-teacher ratios and class sizes were lower and more money were spent per student, we would be even more competitive," Newbold said.

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