SHERIDAN — Within the next 48 hours, each of Sheridan County’s high schools will hold their 2013-2014 commencement ceremonies, graduating roughly 200 young adults.
However, earlier this week the Wyoming Department of Education announced the graduation rates for the 2012-2013 school year, begging the question, what took so long?
It would be easy to assume the number is a simple percentage — the number of students who received a diploma out of the entire body of people capable of doing so. However, it is not quite that easy.
When looking at graduation rates it is imperative to look at the accreditation systems in place. Graduation rates are a key component of state and federal accountability and a school’s ability to receive full accreditation can be affected by a low graduation rate.
The calculations used vary based on the accreditation system being followed and Wyoming currently functions under two systems, causing confusion and concern.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education announced “A Uniform Comparable Graduation Rate,” an enhancement to the previously announced No Child Left Behind regulations, which left state-to-state comparison of graduation rates misleading.
The definition of the finalized regulation seemed straightforward, yet several states found the new calculations contradictory to those already in place at the state level and pursued individual waivers from the federal system.
Wyoming is one of the states that applied to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver, wanting to continue evaluating rates and assessing accountability under the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act. On May 12, the WDE announced that the waiver had not yet been approved, so the state will continue to answer to two systems for at least one more school year.
With overlapping yet contradicting systems, it is possible for a school to be labeled as “failing” under the federal assessment while simultaneously being rated as “exceeding expectations” by the state.
There are three easily identifiable disparities that exist between the state and federal accountability models.
Under WAEA, Wyoming counts any student in a given year who completed the requirements for a diploma as a graduate regardless of how many years it took the student to graduate or with which graduating class he or she entered the school.
Under federal rules, only those students who graduate within four years or less from the year they enroll as a freshman count.
State regulations do not count students who returned to school and received a GED, certificate of completion or other credential in lieu of a diploma as a dropout, federal rules do.
When a student transfers to another school, Wyoming verifies the transfer through transcripts, notification of the parent or a court order. In order for a transfer to be confirmed and not count as a drop out under federal rules, only official written documentation from a school or local education agency will suffice.
A quick way to see one effect the different systems have on the outcome is to compare four-year and five- or six-year graduation rates by county.
In the 2012-2013 school year the official four-year graduation rates were 86.36 percent, 81.07 percent and 70 percent for Sheridan County School District 1, 2 and 3 respectively.
When students who took an extra year to graduate are considered in the calculation, those rates increase to 90.41 percent, 87.4 percent and 75 percent respectively.
“In the old system of education, which was more of the industrial model, time was the constant and the learning was the variable. What we really have to do is make learning the constant and time the variable,” SCSD1 Superintendent Marty Kobza said. “Our focus is the learning, so if that negatively affects our rate, that’s OK. Our focus is the student and making sure when they do leave us, they are prepared for careers and college and what lies ahead in life.”
Kobza said that though the official graduation rate for his district was just over 86 percent last year, 89 percent of their students completed their learning in some way and of the 11 percent who did not yet do so, only three students were actual drop-outs.
With smaller student body populations, overall ratios are affected at a much higher rate. For example, one student at Tongue River High School could affect the school’s graduation rate this year by 4 percent.
The problem is even more evident in SCSD3, which has the smallest student body in the county.
“Because of our small population, one or two students has a huge impact on our graduation rate,” SCSD3 Superintendent Charles Auzqui said.
Transitional students, such as special education students, especially have the potential to alter the rates of a small district when they are counted as dropouts.
“I can honestly say the graduation rate does not accurately reflect what we’ve done with kids and what they’ve gone on to do after high school,” Auzqui said. “Falling under the state guidelines we would have fallen in the 100 percent category.”
Conversely, when dealing with a large student body such as SCSD2 it may take more students to impact the bottom line, but it also takes more work to ensure the numbers are accurate.
Part of the reason the official rates take nearly a year to be finalized is the amount of investigation it takes to report on each student’s status.
For example, with transferring students, documentation must be received, correctly reported, reviewed on the final ledger and then contested if incorrectly classified as a dropout and not a successful transfer.
“We work directly with the Wyoming Department of Education and one of the reasons it is so difficult for all to understand is they are using different data sets than we are so sometimes we look closely and find their data does not match ours,” SCSD2 Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Assessment Tom Sachse said. “For example one student had enrolled in K12.com, an online program, prior to coming to us their freshman year but they didn’t complete anything on the online program so since they had no credits, we counted them as a freshman.
“But the state saw his enrollment in the online program as his freshman year, so even though he graduated in four years with us, he was considered a drop out with the state for completing in five.”
SCSD2 identified this discrepancy, among many others, and filed for corrections with the state.
Some of the arguments found to be errors were corrected and the rate was adjusted accordingly; however some, including this example, were left standing.
Each of the districts note that there are a variety of other numbers available for review outside of the published graduation rate, including the dropout rate.
Though on first glance it may seem logical that a district with a graduation rate of 86 percent would have a dropout rate of 14 percent, that usually isn’t true.
For the 2011-2012 school year, for example, dropout rates for Sheridan County School Districts 1 and 2 were .346 and 3.327 percent respectively. The year prior, the rates hovered around 2 percent.
“I think that’s a better picture than the graduation rate, the dropout rate, because the grad rate doesn’t take into account those students who are still engaged in the educational process but are outside that four-year window,” Kobza said.
He added, though, that students who get a GED count against both rates as they have to dropout first to need a GED so neither number is a 100 percent accurate reflection of total completion.
Regardless of the calculations, accountability system or comparison being used, Sheridan County administrators said they will continue to push for improvement in any area they can.
“We’ve got to find ways to save more than 81.2 or 88 percent of the students, which ever number you want to look at,” Sachse said. “Our goal is to continue looking at improving them in other places until we reach 100 percent career or college ready.”