More than 93,800 high school seniors graduated from New Jersey public high schools in 2012, for a statewide graduation 86 percent, a three point increase over 2011, according to data released Wednesday.

The rate uses a new federally mandated formula started last year, which tracks a cohort of students over a four-year period. And while the new methodology is considered more accurate, local school officials said the numbers alone from the state Department of Education don’t explain why all students may not graduate on time.

They said their primary goal is to make sure students do graduate, even if it takes a little extra time and they don’t get officially counted by the state.

“We have so much transiency here,” Atlantic City Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Sherry Yahn said of the challenges they face both tracking all of the students and making sure they graduate. “Parents work in the casinos, and if work is slow, they may leave for awhile, then come back. If we haven’t been notified where they went, that student becomes a dropout.”

Atlantic City’s graduation rate improved slightly from 68 to almost 70 percent this year. Yahn said they have implemented several new programs they hope can improve the rate over time by as much as 20 percent. A computer program called Plato allows students to make up credits either after school or during the summer. A Peer Group Connection trains students to work with at-risk students to keep them in school and on-track to pass their courses. The school plans to add a ninth period that would give struggling students extra time to get help.

“Everyone is involved in this, from the teachers, to the social workers, truancy officers and guidance counselors,” Yahn said.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf applauded educators for their efforts in raising the graduation rate this year. He noted some of the increase does reflect better accuracy in tracking students. He especially cited a number of targeted urban schools for their improvement, noting that “while our achievement gaps across the state are persistent and unacceptably high, we can close them with dedicated support and interventions.”

Statewide data show that while gaps still exist, graduation rates improved for all groups in 2012. The graduation rate was highest for Asian students at 95 percent, followed by whites at 93 percent, Hispanics at 77 percent and black students at 75 percent.

The graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students was 75 percent, Limited English Proficient students were at 73 percent, and students with disabilities at 74 percent.

Jack Phizenmayer, superintendent of Lower Cape May Regional School District, said since some special education students can stay in school until they are 21, they are not included in the graduation rate with their cohort, lowering the rate for the class.

“They’re still here,” he said. “But they’re not counted.”

Phizenmayer said they have seen a few more special education students take advantage of the opportunity to stay in school and maybe learn some job skills, which could account at least partially for the decrease in the high school’s graduation rate from 87 percent to 80 percent. He said a few other students may just need an extra summer to make up a class, but right now those students are also not counted having graduated.

Smaller schools are more likely to show wider variations each year, since each student counts for more in the percentage.

Locally, the high schools with the highest graduation rates were Ocean City at 99 percent, The Atlantic County Institute of Technology at 97 percent, Egg Harbor Township at 93 percent, Mainland Regional at 92 percent, and Lacey Township at 90 percent.

Among the most improved were Buena Regional, which increased from 84 percent to 90 percent, and Hammonton which rose from 83 percent to 88 percent.

Districts with lower graduation rates this year include Oakcrest High School, which dropped from 89 percent to 82 percent; Vineland, which dropped from 80 percent to 69 percent; Barnegat, which dropped from 89 percent to 84 percent; and Charter Tech High School which dropped from 91 percent to 79 percent.

Stan Karp,cq director of the Secondary Education Reform Project at the Education Law Center in Trenton, said the new method is more accurate, and the data shows New Jersey continues to have strong graduation rates along with the achievement gaps. He said the challenge will be to sustain those high rates and close the gaps as the state implements new tests based on the national common core standards.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241