High school graduation rates dropped statewide under a new state formula for the class of 2011 designed to more accurately measure how many students complete high school.
At some area high schools — including Egg Harbor Township, Mainland Regional, Ocean City and Lacey Township — the rate dropped by just a couple of points and is still over 90 percent.
At others, including Pleasantville, Hammonton, Wildwood and Vineland, the rate dropped by more than 10 points, with Pleasantville’s self-reported rate in 2010 of almost 94 percent dropping to 64 percent in 2011.
The state Department of Education released the new rates Tuesday as part of a federal initiative to develop a more accurate and consistent way to track high how many students graduate from high school. Statewide, the graduation rate dropped from 95 percent to 83 percent.
“The new graduation methodology gives us an honest picture of our current level of achievement and a new baseline upon which we can measure our progress,” acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said in a statement.
Data released Tuesday show how many students graduated by passing the high school graduation test, how many graduated and were exempt from the test, and how many graduated by taking the alternative version of the test.
State officials emphasized the rates from 2010 and 2011 are not really comparable, since they are not calculated in the same manner. Under the new system, the graduation rate is based on the percentage of a freshman class that graduates four years later. Schools may add any new students who come in — and can deduct any students who leave — but must be able to document that those students transferred to another school, left the country or died. The state’s NJSMART student tracking system now makes it possible to follow individual students, but there are still some glitches in the reporting.
“It is good to have better data and it is long overdue,” said Stan Karp, director of the Education Law Center’s Secondary Reform Project. He said his concern is that like test data, the graduation rate can be used to drive policy rather than improve student performance. He noted that state officials used the data to support a new plan for end-of-course tests to increase graduation rates when research has shown mandatory high school graduation tests reduce graduation rates.
School officials said the rate alone does not explain why students are not graduating on time. Donna Haye, assistant superintendent for curriculum in Atlantic City, said the school has many students who arrive not speaking English and are undereducated. Some families are very transient and hard to track. The district’s graduation rate under the new tracking system dropped from 76 percent to 68 percent. Haye said they have always tried to keep data that are as accurate as possible, but there are challenges.
“Students will come and go from their native countries or other states,” she said. “NJSMART works if they stay in state. But if they leave it is very difficult, and if we can’t track them they are considered dropouts.”
She said the data also do not account for students who take more than four years to graduate. She said as many as 10 percent to 12 percent of Atlantic City High School students graduate late, so they are not included in the new graduation rate.
“Poor attendance is an issue here, and we are working on that,” Haye said. “But if students miss too many days, they get taken off the rolls and have to repeat classes. We are trying to do more credit restoration in school and after school so they can graduate.”
State officials said they will be able to calculate an extended-year graduation rate in the future.
Pleasantville superintendent Garnell Bailey said she was not in the district in 2010 so she does not know how they calculated the graduation rate before, but that district staff will work with the state to improve their reported rate of 64 percent.
“We will work with the state to get a better understanding of how to manage our data,” she said. “And we will do all we can to turn that rate around.”
Vocational high schools, which have both full-time and shared-time students, are among those with questionable results, and Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools said there are problems that must be resolved because the rates are included on state report cards.
“It’s kind of a mess,” she said. The problem appears to be confusion about the status of some shared-time students and some special-education students who attend special programs. State officials said that if a school has any full-time students, their graduation rate is included.
Ocean County’s two full-time academies reported graduation rates of almost 100 percent, but a schoolwide graduation rate is listed as 76 percent. School officials are working to understand that discrepancy, Savage said.
Cumberland County’s vocational school has only shared-time students, who all graduate from their hometown high school, but the state still reported a graduation rate for the school of just 29 percent. Superintendent Dina Elliot said in an email that they do house a small full-time special education program, but those students are still considered graduates of their hometown high schools.
“We do not graduate any students,” she said.
Contact Diane D'Amico: