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          Front Page




State to Change Graduation Reporting

By Zsombor Peter
Journal Staff Writer
    New Mexico Education Secretary Veronica Garcia says some school districts are in for a "rude awakening" when the state unveils its latest graduation rates this summer.
    Since the No Child Left Behind Act came along in 2001, New Mexico has been sending the federal government graduation rates based on the percent of seniors who earn a diploma by the end of the year.
    By ignoring the thousands of students who drop out between grades nine and 11, the state has managed to post respectable graduation rates— a percentage in the mid-80s.
    New Mexico had the U.S. Education Department's full consent, but the federal government was keeping its own books, based on the number of freshmen who graduate in four years. Those calculations were coming up with graduation rates for the state in the mid-60s.
    New Mexico was doing nothing unusual but, according to a March 20 article in The New York Times, it has had one of the widest gaps between state and federal figures. Only Mississippi's was wider.
    Garcia expects that to change. Starting this summer, the state will start reporting graduation rates based on entering freshmen.
    By using seniors, Garcia said, the state was giving itself "a false sense of accomplishment."
    Some districts have been using freshmen to track their own graduation rates for years. Albuquerque Public Schools started doing so in 1985, and for the past few years its rates have hovered in the low 50s.
    But for districts that haven't, Garcia said, the change "will be a rude awakening."
    Some educators say this is just the change needed to start addressing the problem.
    The old method "gave us data that was not as accurate as we needed to know," said Peter Winograd, director of the New Mexico Office of Education Accountability.
    Winograd believes that tracking freshmen will give districts a more realistic accounting of how they're doing.
    And it shouldn't hurt the state's chances of making adequate yearly progress under NCLB, Garcia said.
    Under the law, it's not just the formula that states get to choose. They also get to set their own benchmarks for what an acceptable graduation rate ought to be.
    In New Mexico, all a district has to do to make adequate progress is to equal its graduation rate for the year before, said Carlos Martinez, the state's associate secretary for assessment and accountability.
    "NCLB didn't give a lot of guidance," Winograd said.
    His main hope is that states at the very least start calculating their graduation rates the same way.
    During a 2005 meeting of the National Governors Association, the heads of all 50 states agreed to do just that, though Winograd said they've yet to come up with a working model.
    U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has plans of her own. With Congress stalled on reauthorizing the NCLB law, she's considering wielding her executive powers to require states to use a single, federal formula.