Newly released data show Maine’s high school graduation rate dipped between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, but a new method for calculating graduation rates is largely to blame.

The Maine Department of Education on Monday released statewide and school-by-school graduation rates for the 2008-09 academic year.

Some 80.4 percent of students who began high school in the fall of 2005 had graduated four years later, the data show. That’s a drop from the 83.5 percent graduation rate the Department of Education reported for the 2007-08 school year.

But the 2007-08 rate was calculated using a formula that took into account those who took more than four years to graduate, but still received conventional diplomas. The newest rate highlights only the percentage of students who graduated in four years or fewer, or who completed their coursework during a summer session following their fourth year.

“The value in this method is that it puts every state on the same page,” said David Connerty-Marin, a Department of Education spokesman. “We can compare: Who’s successful in what areas and how? What are we not doing well? And what can we do about it?”

The Department of Education is shifting to what’s called a cohort method for calculating graduation rates in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind law that passed in 2002. That legislation requires that all states shift to the same method in time to report their 2009-10 graduation rates in an effort to make state-by-state graduation rates comparable.

For some schools, the newly calculated graduation rate was good news.

At Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, the 2008-09 rate was 92.7 percent, up from 87.2 percent for 2007-08.

“We have individualized kids’ programs; it’s really been a mission,” said Carol Fritz, the principal. “It’s been very intentional on our parts to find the path that they need to graduate.”

Carrabec High School in North Anson showed more than an eight-point jump, reporting a 73.5 percent rate for the 2008-09 year and 65.1 percent for 2007-08.

Kenneth Coville, the district superintendent who was the high school’s principal until last month, hesitated to draw conclusions.

“It’s difficult when the means of calculating changes to draw comparisons because you’re not comparing apples to apples anymore,” he said.

The new cohort method for calculating graduation rates ignores the individualized paths that some students might take, Coville said, and forces schools to report students who take unconventional paths to graduation as dropouts.

“The policy position the Department (of Education) has taken is that students should have flexibility to graduate in less than four years or sometimes in more than four years,” he said. “But simultaneously, they use a methodology that is contradictory to that policy position.”

The revised graduation rate calculations caused a significant drop in the rates some schools reported. At Deer Isle-Stonington High School, for example, the 2008-09 rate dropped to 57.5 percent from 80.4 percent for 2007-08.

Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield saw its graduation rate fall to 80.8 percent for 2008-09, down from 95.3 percent the previous year.

Jennifer Beane, a school spokeswoman, said the change is due to the new graduation rate calculation.

“We’ll be reviewing the report and the data that we see and make some decisions based on what we see in the report,” she said.

In Regional School Unit 2, which serves students from Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond, two of the three district high schools saw their graduation rates drop notably.

Monmouth Academy’s 2008-09 rate was 84.8 percent for 2008-09, down from 94.1 percent in 2007-08. Richmond High School reported 78.8 percent in 2008-09, down from 90.2 percent the previous year. Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale dipped slightly, to 81.7 percent from 82.3 percent.

“As long as kids are making progress, why do we have to group them by age levels? Why do we have to stigmatize them with four years when it might take six years?” asked Donald Siviski, the RSU 2 superintendent. “Life gives you plenty of challenges and sometimes school gets in the way.”

While Maine reports the cohort graduate rate to the federal government, a 26-member group is at work on a separate graduation rate calculation that Maine can use to meet the objectives laid out in a bill sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and passed by lawmakers earlier this year.

That law requires that Maine reach a 90 percent statewide graduation rate by 2016; the 26-member group will make its recommendation on calculating that rate by Nov. 1.

“I hope we come up with strong recommendations on how we incorporate these five- or six-year students who do graduate so we can accurately paint a picture of what our K-12 system is doing,” Alfond said.

That accurately painted picture might also include counting students who earn GEDs and diplomas through adult education programs into the Maine graduation rate, Alfond said.

Matthew Stone — 623-3811, ext. 435
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