03/01/07 — Measure gives new look at N.C. graduates

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Measure gives new look at N.C. graduates

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 1, 2007 1:52 PM

Sixty-one percent of first-time high school ninth-graders in 2002-03 graduated from Wayne County Public Schools in four years or less, slightly below the statewide rate of 68 percent, according to a report presented to the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The first four-year cohort graduation rates, released by state officials, is the new measure that will be used to record the number of high school dropouts.

Educators have eagerly awaited the new measure since 2002 when the federal No Child Left Behind legislation began requiring states to begin reporting the cohort rate. Since the fall of 2002, public school officials have been keeping careful calculations of each ninth- grader as he or she moves through high school.

The goal of the new measurement is to provide the state with its first actual count of how many students graduate with a diploma in four years, officials said. A fifth-year cohort graduation rate will be released this summer, coinciding with the report for the four-year cohort for the 2003-04 ninth-grade group.

High school graduation rates have long been a problem in North Carolina, as well as across the country. State and local officials agree the rates are not in the ideal range and that there is more work to be done.

Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability and student services, said the cohort graduation rate is not a fair representation of the work being done in the classrooms. This is a baseline year, he noted, and there are many variables that have affected school systems across the state.

"For instance, last summer the U.S. Department of Education asked North Carolina to include high school students who transferred into the school after the first 20 days of the 2002-03 school year," he explained. "School systems were also asked to confirm what school students transferred to if they moved to another school system or out of state."

If data managers were unable to track a student or confirm where he transferred, that student was automatically counted as a Wayne County student who had not graduated, thus increasing the local dropout figures, McFadden said.

Statewide, N.C. Department of Public Instruction reported 8 percent of students who could not be located, which translates to about 6,317 students. Whether the family moved frequently or were migrant workers, the loss was reflected in the graduation rates.

One area not included in the cohort graduate rate is students with disabilities who might go all the way through 12th grade and leave high school with a graduation certificate or a certificate of achievement.

Still, McFadden said, the dropout rates are not necessarily any more accurate now than they were before.

"What we need people to understand is that whereas the old graduation rate was artificially high, this new cohort graduation rate is artificially low," he said. "Those students who took more than four years to graduate from high school were not included in the 2006 cohort graduation rate.

"Students who transferred to the community college and graduated with their North Carolina high school diploma were also not counted. Last year, Wayne County Public Schools had nearly 200 students transfer to Wayne Community College to earn their high school diploma through the adult high school diploma program."

No matter where the graduation rate is, it does not necessarily mean that the remainder should be considered dropouts, McFadden said. In the case of the state, reports showed a total of 5,413 students still enrolled in high school at the end of the year who did not receive a diploma. State tabulations show that about 15 percent of ninth-graders are retained each year, with some graduating in five years or more.

Wayne County Public Schools is looking at several efforts expected to improve graduation rates over time. All of the traditional high schools will launch freshman academies to aid students' transition from middle to high school.

State initiatives being considered include the New Schools Project with its smaller, more focused schools; Learn and Earn, which provides opportunities for high school students to complete a five-year program with a high school degree and community college credit; and high school turnaround efforts for the lowest-performing North Carolina schools; and adolescent literary coaches.

The school system is also working to help low wealth students, who might lack access to educational resources at home, to better succeed academically. With an estimated 58 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, that is an ongoing concern, said Dr. Steven Taylor, schools superintendent.

"That number is up from 47 percent five years ago," he said. "To help these students graduate ready to face 21st century challenges, the school system utilizes computer labs with assistive technology in reading and math; tutoring before, during and after school; and multi-sensory learning."