Graduation rates took a tumble in many Maine school districts in 2008-09, according to data released last week by the state Department of Education.

State officials attribute the decrease to their use of a new formula, soon to be required by the federal government, which doesn’t count students who take longer than four years to get a diploma.

However, a recalculation of 2008-09 graduation data using the old formula shows the diverse impact of the new formula, which produced a statewide graduation rate of 80.4 percent. Under the old formula, the statewide graduation rate for the class of 2008-09 would have been 82.2 percent, down from 83.5 percent in 2007-08.

Excluding longer-term students from the count disturbs many education officials and is a focus of work being done by a legislative panel that’s bent on increasing Maine’s overall graduation rate to at least 90 percent.

“The new calculation disrespects the fine work that’s being done by students who take a little longer to graduate,” said Jeanne Crocker, principal of South Portland High School. “I prefer the old calculation.”

On the plus side, for the first time, all states will be required to calculate graduation rates the same way, said David Connerty-Marin, state department spokesman.

States must start using the new method to figure graduation rates for the class of 2009-10, but Maine education officials decided to adopt the new method a year early, Connerty-Marin said. The new method counts the number of students in a freshman class who graduate within four years. It also counts students who transfer in and out of the class during that period.

“It doesn’t present the full picture,” Connerty-Marin agreed. “We know that not every kid is going to make it in four years. But this method allows us to compare high school programs across Maine and the nation so we can better understand what’s working and what’s not.”

Maine generally does better than most states when it comes to graduating high schoolers. In 2006-07, Maine tied for eighth place with Pennsylvania, with a graduation rate of 77.6 percent, according to an Education Week analysis released last month. The national graduation rate that year was 68.8 percent, according to the EdWeek analysis.

Still, the Maine Legislature passed a law earlier this year that set a goal to increase the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

In response, a 26-member group of educators and others has begun developing guidelines to help Maine school districts graduate more students. As part of their work, group members are considering broader ways to assess the success of Maine high schools that include students who take more than four years to graduate or receive diplomas through alternative programs.

Initially, Maine education officials said the new federal formula used to calculate 2008-09 graduation rates made it impossible to compare to past years’ rates.

Then, at the request of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, they released the 2008-09 rates as they would have been calculated using the old method. The results were mixed.

Some high schools that saw their graduation rates decrease under the new formula would have seen an increase under the old formula. Others would have seen their rates decrease or remain unchanged under the old formula.

Falmouth High School’s graduation rate in 2008-09 was 89.71 percent under the new formula. Under the old formula, it would have been 99.38 percent, up from 97.42 percent in 2007-07.

Cape Elizabeth High School’s graduation rate in 2008-09 was 96 percent under the new formula. Under the old formula, it would have been just over 95 percent, up from 90.63 percent in 2007-08.

Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth school officials couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Portland High School’s graduation rate in 2008-09 was 75.93 percent under the new formula. Under the old formula, the graduation rate would have been 83.39 percent, up from 78.82 percent in 2007-08.

At Deering High School, also in Portland, the graduation rate in 2008-09 was about the same using either formula — just over 83 percent — up from 79.3 percent in 2007-08.

Mike Johnson, principal of Portland High School, said he pays attention to the graduation rates, but he’s more focused on helping students earn their diplomas, regardless of how long it takes.

“The numbers are important because I don’t want Portland High School to be portrayed as a school that doesn’t graduate kids,” Johnson said. “But I’m more concerned about dropouts, the kids who walk out and I never see again. If I can get them to come back for a fifth year and they get their diploma, I’m not concerned about how that affects our graduation rate.”

Johnson said his staff advises students who are struggling or need more time to prepare for college to take five years if they need to, especially students who are learning to speak English or have special needs.

South Portland High School’s graduation rate in 2008-09 was 77.24 percent under the new formula. Under the old formula, it would have been 81.17 percent, down from 83.08 percent in 2007-08.

South Portland High also has many students who are learning to speak English and have special needs. And like Mike Johnson, Jeanne Crocker isn’t swayed from her efforts to graduate students when they’re ready and not when they’ve put in enough “seat time.”

Crocker is one of four South Portland faculty members who will attend the state’s Youth Development Institute (formerly called the Dropout Prevention Institute) on Monday through Wednesday at the University of Maine in Orono.

“I really don’t care how long it takes,” Crocker said. “It’s absolutely the best thing to go the extra year if it ensures they succeed in getting their diploma.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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