When Utah education officials say a significant drop in the state's graduation rates based on a new national standard doesn't really indicate that fewer are graduating, they are not telling the whole truth. Utah's 90 percent graduation rate in 2010 dropped to just 76 percent for the Class of 2011 based on a new federal formula adopted for consistency among all the states.
That's a much more realistic number, particularly for one reason: The national formula demands that schools count ninth-graders in the pool of potential graduates, and that takes into account Utah's shameful dropout rate, especially among minority students, that begins long before 10th grade.
In fact, the State Office of Education indicates the dropout rate doubles each year from seventh to 12th grade, with seniors accounting for the highest percentage. Utah's previous practice of counting only 10th-, 11th- and 12-graders in the pool ignored the thousands of students who never make it to 10th grade.
And that number is astonishing, especially among Latino and Native American students. Using the new calculations and including younger students, only 57 percent of Utah's Latino and American Indian students are graduating. Utah also used to include among its "graduates" students with severe cognitive disabilities who did not earn regular diplomas, students who earned GEDs after leaving high school without diplomas, students who transferred to higher education, who withdrew due to illness or injury or who earned certificates of completion but not diplomas. Those and special-education students who needed more than four years to graduate are not now counted as graduates under the new formula.
It's time for Utahns and their legislators to accept the fact that the old "stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap" method no longer works in the Beehive State.
Utah has the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the nation by far. Utah dropped from eighth to 26th in the amount taxpayers provide for schools per $1,000 of income between 1995 and 2009. Utah has the highest birth rate in the country, and personal exemptions to the income tax, the primary source of education funding, mean that those with the most children pay the least. Even when Utah had a $1 billion surplus, the Legislature favored tax cuts and transportation, not public schools.
It's no surprise that only 27 percent of ACT test takers have scores high enough to show they are ready for college-level work. But it is appalling that the Legislature continues to ignore the facts and the implications for Utah's future.