Highline Schools: Graduation demystified

By Ann Kendall

What goes into calculating a district’s graduation rate? How did Highline’s estimated on-time graduation rate of 72.1 % in the 2009-2010 school-year slide to 65.8% in the 2012-13 school year? For Highline, and school districts nationwide, new calculation methodology has altered who, how and when districts count students.

It’s 7:25 am and students at Highline’s Arts and Academics Academy (AAA) ninth graders are settling down to business for the day. This year’s freshman class of 2017 is different than those that walked these halls just last year. As part of the Highline School District’s 2013-2017 Strategic Plan, these ninth graders will benefit from the assignment of a mentor from their building – a mentor who can guide their academic success, help with issues at home and keep students from falling behind or even off track. The Strategic Plan clearly states, that starting with this freshman class, 19 out of 20 of these students will graduate from Highline ready to choose their future and individual mentors are just one part of this aggressive goal.

To understand the importance of the 19/20 Strategic Plan, it is necessary to understand what a graduation rate really indicates, and how complicated this calculation has been over time. Looking at the rates for Highline, or any other school district across the country, is not for the faint of heart when it comes to statistics. Prior to the 2012-13 school year, graduation rates across Washington state were estimates using data from just a single school year; for instance, subtract the number of students (the cohort) that finish their senior year from the number of students that started that year in the cohort results in the traditional calculation of a district’s graduation rate. A casual glance at the data statewide will show fairly impressive graduation rates for many districts with some districts reporting graduation rates as high as 95%. The last year the estimate system was used for Highline (2010-11), shows an estimated on-time graduation rate of 70.6% and an extended graduation rate of 83.8%.

What the traditional method did not account for is vast and given the disparity in calculations nationwide, the U.S. Department of Education along with the National Governors Association developed a uniform calculation that provides an accurate picture of a real cohort – one that begins that day a student enters as part of a freshman class and tracks them to completion. This adjusted cohort method, “Makes no modification for students whose expected graduation timeframe is longer than four year. It does not allow cohort reassignment for special education or limited English proficiency students.” (Washington State Graduation Calculations Rate, OPSI, 2012) Under the traditional calculation students could be reassigned to a new cohort; perhaps they enter a class year as an older student and based on maturity remaining with younger students is not the best educational course, perhaps they are a special education student who will receive education until age 21 as part of an IEP but never graduate – in each of these cases the student would simply be reassigned a new cohort. The new adjusted cohort method disallows for these changes, a student belongs to the same cohort now, for their life as a high school student.

This change of method is important to understand because more accuracy often leads to a lower percentage, at least on paper, of a district’s graduation rate. For Highline, the adjusted rates for 2010-11 were 61.2% for four year graduation and 62.4% for five year graduation, which compared to the traditional estimate method appears to represent a major drop. As such, the percentage of students not shown as graduating are an important group to understand, from students with significant disabilities to students that transfer in to Highline far behind their peers and continue their studies at a local community college instead of a high school, to students that are better served in alternative programs such as South Seattle Community College’s Career Link or students who technically have enough credits to graduate but aren’t passing exit exams and need extra help at another institution to finish their studies. Whether a student is part of the cohort for a week or four years, each counts in the adjusted cohort method providing district leaders with nuanced and exact data of whom needs help, where and why. This is important as not only does this data drive the district’s Strategic Plan, but it makes the 2012-13 school year a new benchmark for graduation rate comparison.

Next week in Part Two: What does it mean for teachers?

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.