COLUMBUS — Public schools in Ohio saw their graduation rates drop as districts nationwide move to a new federal formula used to calculate who is finishing high school.
The new rates appeared for the first time Wednesday on the state’s annual report cards. The report shows what academic gains Ohio public schools and districts made in the 2010-11 school year. It features schools’ rankings, as well as their graduation rates, attendance rates and other information.
Several of the state’s largest public school districts saw their 2010 graduation rates plummet under the new calculation that’s required by federal law.
For instance, Dayton’s graduation rate sank to roughly 59 percent under the new formula, compared with just above 84 percent under the current calculation. Cincinnati public schools saw a rate of 60.2 percent graduate using the new formula. That’s a drop from about 82 percent using the current method. And Cleveland saw its record-high graduation rate of 62.8 percent fall to 52.2 percent under the new formula.
Most states are required to convert to the new federal calculation this year, but the number won’t count as part of federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks until the 2012-13 school year.
Currently, if a student says he’s transferring to a new school but never does, he’s not counted against the graduation rate. The new formula requires schools to be more vigilant in tracking students who may have transferred or dropped out. It’s intended to create uniform reporting of graduation rates.
Janet Walsh, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati’s district, said flawed data contributed to its disparity in rates. She said the district found instances where foreign exchange students were counted as dropouts, as were parochial students who took career education classes.
Transient students are harder to track, she said. About 800 students leave the district to go to nearby Kentucky or other states.
“That’s why we think that there are regional issues with the new graduation rate that might artificially inflate the number of dropouts for Cincinnati public schools and other districts with high mobility rates near state lines,” Walsh said.
Administrators at Dayton and Cleveland schools also said they’ve identified issues with how data is collected under the new formula, but they remain focused on improving their graduation numbers.
“We have room for improvement no matter which way we calculate,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive officer for the Cleveland school district. Cleveland’s graduation rate has hovered in the mid-50s since 1995, he said.
State superintendent Stan Heffner said the Ohio Department of Education has been working with districts since 2006 to make sure they were ready for the new formula.
Heffner told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that the updated calculation will allow Ohio education officials to compare the state’s numbers with other states to find ways to improve its graduation rate.
As part of the transition to the updated calculation, the state is abandoning statistics that tended to overinflate the graduation rate, Heffner said.
“The new formula is going to be much more precise,” he said.
The state’s overall graduation rate for 2010 slid to 78 percent under the new formula, compared with about 84 percent using the existing method. Neither number was better than the decade-high 86.9 percent in 2007.
Akron public schools was one of the larger school districts that saw a slight bump in its graduation rate under the new formula — 76.8 percent, compared with 76.4 percent. Administrators there said they aggressively track students who potentially drop out or withdraw from school.
“When a student does not show up for school, regardless of age, our staff actively searches for the student,” said Ellen McWilliams, an assistant superintendent in Akron.
Heffner said one of his biggest concerns from the 2010-11 report card was the progress of 5th graders. Students in 5th grade missed the state’s proficiency mark for math, reading and science.
He said part of the issue is that 5th grade text becomes more complex. There more abstract problems in math and fewer pictures in books that students read.
“We really do need to continue a very strong focus on helping students exiting their elementary experiences in 5th grade, so they do go to the middle grades better prepared for success,” he said.
Heffner said better prepared 5th graders lead to more successful middle schoolers. “That will carry on to the likelihood that they will not only succeed in high school, but they will graduate on time.”
Ohio’s report card did show some positive gains in other areas.
No district is on academic emergency. Six districts are on academic watch, three fewer than in the 2009-10 school year. And 2,610 schools were ranked “effective” or “higher,” compared with 2,495 the previous year. The highest ranking is “excellent with distinction,” the state’s version of an A+.