Maine’s high school graduation rate ranks 10th in the nation, according to the first data released by the U.S. Department of Education that uses the same standard for all states.

Maine’s graduation rate for the 2010-11 school year was 84 percent. Iowa had the highest rate, 88 percent.

Previously, states used various criteria to define high school graduates, with some including students who earned GEDs or students who took five or six years to graduate, for example.

Experts say the new method — which essentially bases the rates on students who enter school as ninth-graders and graduate within four years — matters because it allows for direct comparisons.

In addition to providing overall graduation rates, the Department of Education now breaks down the rates by categories, such as ethnic populations, students with disabilities, students with economic disadvantages, and students with limited English skills.

Maine, which released its graduation rates in June, has been using the new method for calculating graduation rates for three years.

“This gives us a level playing field,” said David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

Silvernail served recently as lead research analyst for the Maine State Board of Education and the Legislature in developing a school funding formula for Maine.

He said that having an “apples-to-apples” way to compare states is useful for researchers and policy-makers because it removes the perception that another state’s experience isn’t relevant because it uses a different methodology.

The sub-categories are important, too, he said. If a state is focusing on improving graduation rates for a particular group of students, such as economically disadvantaged, it can easily find comparative data.

Maine’s graduation rates for sub-categories in 2010-11 included:

• 78 percent for limited English speakers.

• 73 percent for economically disadvantaged students.

• 66 percent for students with disabilities.

What produces a high graduation rate?

At Yarmouth High School, which had one of Maine’s highest rates, 96.7 percent, it’s personal attention to struggling students, the principal said.

“We have a saying here: It’s really hard to fall through the cracks at Yarmouth. The kids would have to really look for the cracks,” Principal Ted Hall said Wednesday.

For example, at the end of the first quarter of the school year, Hall meets with teachers and guidance counselors to discuss all students’ grades — in particular the seniors’ grades.

A senior who starts to slide academically may not be able to catch up in time to graduate, he said.

“If we see any potential problems, we meet with the student, we get with the parents. Whatever it takes, that’s our attitude,” he said.

It appears to be working. In 2010-11, Yarmouth had the second-highest graduation rate among public high schools in Cumberland County, behind Cape Elizabeth High School’s 97.3 percent.

In 2009-10, Yarmouth edged out Cape Elizabeth for the top graduation rate, 97.5 percent to Cape’s 94.7 percent.

Hall said much of the research indicates that dropouts feel no one cared, or even noticed they were in danger.

“That may not be completely true, but you have to ask, what’s the kernel of truth in that?” Hall said.

Several educators and experts noted that the graduation rate is just one statistic, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall learning experience or quality of a particular school.

It doesn’t capture, for example, how many graduates go on to college, or the breadth of a school’s academic or extracurricular offerings.

“A hidden piece of the Maine schools is that a lot of really small schools are keeping kids engaged,” said Hall, without necessarily having high graduation rates.

Many education initiatives are under way in Maine, he said, noting efforts to quantify teachers’ evaluations and adopt Common Core standards of learning.

“What I hope isn’t forgotten is that it’s relationships with the kids in the classroom and the school that are probably the most important factor to getting kids off the starting line,” Hall said.

The U.S. Department of Education, which issued the data this week, has not calculated a national graduation rate, since three states have been granted extensions to compile complete results.

“The fact that we’re all using the same system is very good,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of effort, in the state and nationally, to be able to use data better. This is an important part of that,” he said. “We’re able to remove the uncertainty of (earlier) data.”

It could also de-politicize the debate over the best way to improve public education.

Gov. Paul LePage angered educators this month when he told an audience at York County Community College that Maine’s public schools aren’t doing a good job of educating students. Even at the state’s best high schools, he said, only about 60 percent of the students are rated proficient in English and math.

The graduation rate is one measurement used under the federal No Child Left Behind law to determine whether a school is making adequate yearly progress.

Connerty-Marin said the state wants to use such data “not for the purpose of saying this district is good and this one is bad, but to say, ‘Let’s find five districts like our district and see what they’re doing with high school dropouts because we have an issue with that.’

Even with the 84 percent graduation rate, one-sixth of Maine students are not graduating from high school, he noted.

“We need to demand more rigor. It points to the need for student-based learning, and the need for multiple pathways, since students don’t all learn the same way, and part of that would be school choice,” he said, referring to several of the LePage administration’s educational priorities.

 

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com