November 30, 2012

Graduation rates: Maine among the best

The first ranking using the same standards for all states puts Maine at No. 10 and shows schools that can serve as models.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

This June 2008 file photo shows the Portland High School graduation at Merrill Auditorium at City Hall in Portland. 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.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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GRADUATION NOTES

• Maine's graduation rate increased for the third straight year in 2011 (80.4 in 2009 and 82.8 in 2010).

• Among other New England states, Vermont (87) and New Hampshire (86) ranked higher than Maine, while Massachusetts (83), Connecticut (83) and Rhode Island (77) were lower.

• The District of Columbia had the lowest graduation rate in the country at 59 percent.

HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION DATA 
FOR OTHER 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.

(Continued on page 2)

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