The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 17, 2013

School districts turn to improving graduation rates

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

— Area school administrators are in favor of a state-announced goal to graduate nine out of 10 students in four years by 2020. But many are still navigating the complex formula that goes into calculating each district’s graduation rate.

The formula is new, having changed with the complicated new state system of accountability, called the Multiple Measurements Rating. The grad rates are just one component that enters into the overall MMR scores, which determine annually if schools are meeting or exceeding state standards, or if they need improvement.

Because administrators are still learning the process — including reading the breakdown of various categories of a student’s path through high school — several could only offer general comments about the new goal, as well as their 2012 reported graduation rates.

“I think that setting a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate is a good one, and why wouldn’t we?” said St. Peter Schools Supt. Jeff Olson.

According to figures tallied by the state Department of Education, 23 percent of public school students did not graduate from high school in the standard four years in 2012.

The 2012 figures on the Department of Education website showed St. Peter had a four-year graduation rate of 87.5 percent (119 out of 136 students), and a dropout rate of 2.21 percent. Mankato Area Public Schools had a four-year graduation rate of 83.12 percent (448 out of 539) with a 4.82 percent dropout rate.

There are also categories accounting for “Continuing” students and “Unknown.” The “Continuing” category includes any student in the class that didn’t graduate on time but is planning to continue their education, said Stephanie Graff, a policy specialist at the Department of Education.

The students may be special ed, English language learners or at risk, among various other reasons for needing more time, she said. But the goal for 90 percent on-time graduation includes those sub-groups of students, she said.

Any student who begins ninth grade with a class and then transfers out of the district is removed from the class total. But it’s up to each district to track that student and report that he or she should be removed from the cohort, Graff said, rather than end up in the “Unknown” category, which lowers the graduation rate.

Cindy Amoroso, Mankato director of curriculum instruction, said the district always looks to that average to help measure its performance.

“We’re a good 5 1/2 percentage points higher than the state,” Amoroso said, referring to the 77.6 percent state average. “That’s good news.”

Amoroso said the district has implemented a number of changes that are already impacting student retention and success. They include a ninth-grade academy to help with the transition into high school; academic and behaviorial interventions; revised curriculum; and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), an acceleration system that targets the academic middle and gets them on track for college. (St. Peter also has implemented the AVID system.)

“The majority of those changes have been put into place for the class that’s currently in 10th grade,” Amoroso said.

The 2012 data showed Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial’s four-year graduation rate was 98.15 percent with just one student out of 54 having dropped out.

“Knowing this district and the standards here, that sounds consistent with what expectations are,” said Supt. Tom Farrell.

Rates for smaller districts in the area with fewer than 40 graduates, including Nicollet and St. Clair, are not reported or calculated, Graff said.

The legal age to drop out of high school is 16. In this legislative session’s education omibus bill there’s a provision to raise the age to 17.