"If you just look at this you would say, 'Wow 90 percent of the kids were graduating in 2010 ... What happened to all those students? Why are we not graduating our students?' " Park said. "Well that's not the case. It's a change in the calculation, not a change in student behavior."
Plus, Utah's graduation rates are improving, she said. When state officials applied the new formula to years past, they found that the state's high school graduation rate has actually risen by 7 percentage points over the past four years. Graduation rates also have improved among students who are Latino, black, American Indian, English language learners, from low-income families, and who have disabilities though gaps between groups remain.
"There's been incredible improvement happening in the state and I think this speaks to the hard work students and schools are doing," Park said. Still, she said, "Until we can say 100 percent of our kids graduated I think there's always room for improvement."
All states are being required to use the new formula in an effort to make comparisons easier between states and ensure rates aren't inflated at the state level. The formula, however, changes the way many states have been calculating their rates. Chris West, a researcher at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said he expects 5 to 10 percent declines in most states.
But he says it's a good switch, calling the new rates "more realistic" because they focus mainly on counting students who earn regular diplomas.
"They weren't inaccurate before," West said of the old state calculations, "but if everybody is defining things differently it's hard to have a national discussion."
Under the new calculation, different students are counted as graduates and nongraduates. For example, the old Utah formula counted as graduates students with severe cognitive disabilities who took a certain state assessment but didn't earn regular diplomas; students who earned GEDs; and special education students who took more than four years to graduate. Now, none of those categories of students can be included as graduates.
Also, students who transfer to higher education, to a Utah College of Applied Technology, who withdraw from high school due to illness or injury, for example, or who earn certificates of completion (meaning they didn't leave high school but didn't earn enough credits to graduate either) must now be counted as nongraduates whereas before they weren't included in any calculations.
And, the statewide graduation rate is now being calculated starting with 9th graders instead of with 10th graders.
With those changes, most Utah school districts saw their graduation rates decline for last school year.
Among the five largest school districts in the state, Canyons District had the highest graduation rate but still saw its rate drop from 95 percent to 83 percent because of the new formula.
Canyons Superintendent David Doty credited the district's relatively high rates to its focus on encouraging students to take courses meant to prepare them for life beyond high school, such as by offering differentiated diplomas.
Despite the drop, Doty said he supports the new formula because it counts students starting in ninth grade rather than 10th.
"I anticipated that it would happen, I think we all did, but I'm certainly not discouraged by it," Doty said of the decrease. "I think it's a more comprehensive way of looking at it."
Park said she thinks the new calculation is good but cautioned that it's important to continue to honor and recognize students who may not earn diplomas because they're in special education or continuing their educations in other ways.
The formula change also led to big drops among rates for minority groups. According to the new data, only 57 percent of Utah's Latino and American Indian students are graduating, though their rates are improving.
Isaiah "Ike" Spencer, chair of the state school board's Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee, said he can see how those numbers might have dropped now that ninth grade is included.
"You're looking at more people that aren't going to be in the high paying jobs," Spencer said, noting it will be difficult for state leaders to reach the goal of having a highly skilled future workforce with such graduation rates. He said he'd like to see graduation rates calculated using data starting in eighth grade, to get an even better picture.
According to state office data, dropout rates about double each year from seventh to 12th grades, with the highest percentages of students dropping out as seniors.
State officials also released data Tuesday showing that class sizes, in many cases, have increased this year, though statewide class sizes overall remain unchanged. The median class size is 24 students in elementary grades and 29 students in secondary schools.
As was true last year, schools that failed to meet federal testing goals had larger class sizes on average than those that passed. Also, schools with high percentages of students from low-income homes tended to have lower class sizes, likely because they often receive additional federal funding, Park said.
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