Friday, September 25, 2009
State Botched Grad Rates
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
Much has been made of the 46 percent graduation rate at Albuquerque Public Schools, which was announced by state officials Aug. 3 amidst a swirl of public hand-wringing and concern.
Turns out the number is wrong. So is the statewide graduation rate of 54 percent.
The state Public Education Department, which compiled what it touted as the first state-produced "cohort" graduation rate, will come out with new figures that will put the APS graduation rate between 58 percent and 63 percent, APS Superintendent Winston Brooks said Thursday.
State Education Secretary Veronica Garcia cautioned that the new numbers have not been certified, but acknowledged that APS graduation numbers will be substantially higher than those announced last month.
Garcia also said there will be a "jump" in the 54 percent statewide figure, but said she would not be specific because she hasn't certified the numbers. She said the larger districts statewide will see the biggest change.
"It seems like the larger the district, the more volatility in the numbers," she said.
APS Board President Martin Esquivel said it was good news that the graduation rate might be as high as 63 percent, although he said that number isn't good enough. He also said he was baffled by the discrepancy in the state numbers.
If the state wasn't more certain of the numbers, it should have thought twice about releasing them, he said.
"I think the most unfortunate thing is those early numbers really did a lot of damage to the confidence within APS, and I think that was unnecessary in retrospect," he said. "How can we figure out box office numbers for a weekend movie and not figure out graduation rates?"
Brooks said the wide discrepancy also calls into question the state's ability to accurately calculate progress under No Child Left Behind.
"It makes everyone a little skeptical," he said.
The state formula tries to account for transfers, charter school students and students who spend only part of their high school career in a particular district.
The change in the graduation rate does not reflect a significant difference in the number of graduating students, but rather in the overall number of students tracked.
Rose-Ann McKernan, executive director of Instruction and Accountability at APS, said many students should not have been counted because they were not first-time ninth-graders. Others had transferred outside the United States and were improperly accounted for.
McKernan said the district made about 1,500 corrections to the data the state used to calculate the graduation rates. She said APS submitted the corrections in June to a draft of the state report, but those changes were not made until after the state held its news conference in August.
Deputy Education Secretary Catherine Cross Maple confirmed there was a "programming calculation problem" with the APS corrections.
This is the first year the state has released a cohort graduation rate, and Garcia said Thursday she had expected the percentages might fluctuate widely after districts had a chance to audit the data. The cohort rate tracked individual students from the ninth grade through the summer after their senior year in 2008 to show how many graduated.
"This is the first year that we calculated it, period, and also the first time using this methodology," she said. "Because it's the first year around, I sort of suspected that this might happen. I'm happy to do some auditing."
She said the numbers were always intended to be preliminary.
While the department did refer to the rates as preliminary when the figures were released, PED chief statistician Cindy Gregory told the Journal in August that the statewide cohort figures "might go up or down a percent" as schools reviewed their rates.
The dismal rates announced by Garcia at the August news conference were the basis for Gov. Bill Richardson's "Graduate New Mexico" initiatives that call for spending $8.9 million in federal stimulus dollars on more education reforms.
APS calculates its own graduation rates each year. The APS number for 2008 was 43.9 percent, and Brooks said that number is still accurate but relies on a different methodology than the state used.
The APS number does not attempt to take transfer students into account. Instead, it measures only the percentage of students who started ninth-grade and graduated from an APS school four years later.
The revised graduation figure will affect recent improvement goals Brooks set for the district. Those targets were based on the 46 percent graduation number, and Brooks had set a target for the district of 61 percent by 2012. Based on these new numbers, he may already have reached it.
"I think I should get a raise," he joked.
He said he will set a new target, using the revised numbers and the same formula. Despite the higher rate, he said he still plans to take aggressive measures to curb the number of students dropping out.
"I'm not so hung up on what this arbitrary number is," he said. "I do care that the next year it's better."
Journal staff writer Martin Salazar contributed to this report.