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The high school graduation rate is up in Utah — up to about 90 percent for last school year, according to the state Office of Education.

But it could drop significantly for this school year, when Utah will be required to change the way it calculates graduation rates.

About 90 percent of the Class of 2010 graduated, up from 88 percent in 2009, according to the state office. Graduation rates also rose among each of Utah's ethnic groups, and the gaps between the rates of white students and Latino, American Indian and black students narrowed by several percentage points.

"That's very exciting and speaks to all the things parents and educators and kids are trying to do to graduate and improve what they're doing," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent.

Starting with the Class of 2011, however, the rates are likely to change. The federal government will make all states use the same formula and rules to calculate graduation rates in an effort to make sure rates aren't inflated and to make comparisons between states easier.

The current state formula and the new formula count different types of students as dropouts or graduates.

For example, each year, a number of Utah students are now listed as "unknown," meaning education officials don't know whether they dropped out, transferred elsewhere, moved out-of-state or moved out of the country. That's despite each student having a unique number for tracking purposes.

Now, those students aren't included in Utah's graduation rate. But under the new requirements, they likely will be counted. If all those students had been counted this year, Utah's graduation rate would have been 75 percent, not 90 percent, according to the state education office.

Jennifer Lambert, state office data and statistics coordinator, said school districts have been asked to research the tracking issue so they can try to fix it this school year. If they don't fix it, some districts' graduation rates could drop dramatically.

"Our fear is they're going to be wrongly counted as dropouts when they shouldn't be," Lambert said.

Al Church, an advocate for alternative high school models, said it's a unsettling that so many students are "unknown."

"How much denial can the traditional system engage in to say we don't have a problem?" asked Church, an adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah and former principal of the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science charter school. "How come we can't be honest about saying, 'Gee, we are not meeting the needs of as many kids as we should.' Can we reflect on how to do a better job with our high school programs?"

Bruce Penland, executive director of secondary education in the Ogden district, said it can be difficult to track some students, especially in high-poverty districts where families move often, such as Ogden. He said the district works to track kids who stop attending school by sending home letters and making home visits, but sometimes families just leave without telling the district. Ogden School District's graduation rate would have been 21 percentage points lower this year had its unknowns been counted, according to the state office.

"We have lots of kids who move multiple times and stay within the district, and we have many kids who leave the school district and essentially go to parts unknown," Penland said. "It's just going to penalize us because we have a much harder time tracking a very, very mobile population whose housing is at risk all the time and whose jobs are at risk all the time."

But regardless of how the state's graduation rates might change next year, Lambert said the higher percentages this year are good news because they're up compared with numbers crunched the same way last year.

In fact, districts such as Ogden are part of the state's improvement this year. Though Ogden continues to have the lowest graduation rate in the state among districts, its rate shot up by 5 percentage points to 70 percent between this year and last.

Penland credited a number of programs throughout the district, including at the elementary school level, for the improvement. The district also in recent years implemented smaller learning communities in its high schools, where students are grouped by interest in fields such as health or business and then taught in those groups.

"Turning a district around takes a lot of years ... and I think we're now starting to get traction," Penland said.

Canyons School District's first graduating class last school year also finished strong with a 95 percent graduation rate. Alta and Brighton high schools posted rates of 98 percent.

Canyons Superintendent Dave Doty attributed the schools' success to educators, parental support and the district's efforts to help at-risk kids early.

He said he supports the move to the federal graduation rate, especially because it will count students starting in ninth grade. Utah's current formula counts them from 10th grade on because many Utah high schools start in 10th grade. All Canyons high schools will include ninth grade starting in 2013. He said he plans to work with his staff and board to look at how to better track kids who leave.

"We're going to work to find a way," Doty said. "That doesn't mean we're going to get every one of them, but I'm not going to accept the sort of eventuality that because they move, they're unknown." —

High school graduation rates

Alpine District • 91 percent

Canyons District • 95 percent

Davis District • 93 percent

Granite District • 84 percent

Jordan District • 89 percent

Murray District • 88 percent

Ogden District • 70 percent

Salt Lake District • 72 percent

Source • Utah Office of Education