‘On-time’ graduate calculation negatively impacts district

Years ago, you could drop out of Fairmont High School, go to the neighboring city of Moraine and work at the General Motors plant. Without any formal training or even a high school diploma, you could get a job, support a family and have a steady life. Times have changed, though, and so has the level of education necessary to get a good-paying job in these hard economic times.

Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Education has laid down new rules on how graduation rates are calculated in order to help schools keep better track of graduation rates and increase the number of educated people in the workforce.

“In the late ’90s, there was a huge push for kids to graduate from high school. I think what they’ve found over the last 15 years is that school districts have been pretty creative in how they do their numbers,” said Kettering City Schools Superintendent Dr. James Schoenlein. “Even though they had guidelines, graduation rates were all over the place, and it was really hard to know what a 94 percent graduation rate meant. The U.S. Department of Education wants this to be uniform, so when we say 92 percent graduation rate, it means the same thing in every school district in every state in the country.”

Under the new system, an “on-time” graduate is defined as a student who graduates within four years from the start date of his freshman year. “When a student walks in the door as a freshman, the clock starts ticking,” said Schoenlein. “Every single one of them has to graduate in four years from the time they walk in, or it counts against the district.”

Schoenlein added that if a student enrolls at Fairmont at the start of his senior year, but it took him four years to get there at his old district, the penalty for the student’s lack of “on-time” graduation will fall on Kettering.

Before these changes, an “on-time” graduate didn’t even exist. Fairmont calculated its graduation rate based on whether or not a student beginning his senior year graduated by the end of that year.

The issue with the rule change is that it is causing most districts’ average graduation rates to drop from 7 to 10 percent. For instance, Kettering dropped from 97.1 percent to 90.3 percent. While this decrease isn’t as dramatic as Dayton Public Schools’ drop from 84.4 percent to 59.6 percent, it’s still a large enough drop to concern Schoenlein and other Kettering school officials.

One of the biggest areas impacting schools under the new system involves the education of severely disabled students, a total of 22 students at Fairmont currently. The Special Education Department teaches these students life skills, such as budgeting, riding a bus, holding a job and living on their own. Kettering follows state law that allows these students to attend school until they are 22 years of age to ensure they get the most education possible in order to fully learn and maintain these life skills.

The problem, however, is that since these severely disabled students take longer than four years to graduate, they must now be counted as dropouts. Schoenlein hopes this issue will be fixed in the future.

Grad rate is a report card requirement

But if nothing has really changed except how the graduation rate is calculated, what’s the big deal?

Well, in Ohio a district’s graduation rate is one of the indicators used on the state report card, which ranks districts as Excellent with Distinction, Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch or Academic Emergency. Most recently, Kettering was ranked as “Excellent,” narrowly missing the top ranking, which it had the previous year.

While Kettering has consistently maintained a report card with a very high grade, the new graduation calculation threatens this. Currently, the state requires districts to achieve at least a 90 percent graduation rate in order to satisfy that indicator. Kettering’s 2010-11 report card shows a graduation rate of 97.1 percent, but the new calculation drops that to 90.3 percent, threatening the district’s ability to make the indicator.

“If we should happen to not make the indicator on the state report card, that would be troublesome,” said Schoenlein. “We have to make that indicator and we’re going to have to work even harder to pay attention to graduating our kids.”

While Schoenlein is worried about meeting the state report card standards, economic issues also come into play with the new rules. “I’ve already gotten a request from the high school to spend more money on more people to keep track of it all. There’s a demand for more work and more money and more people devoted to graduation rate. It’s troublesome for me,” the superintendent said. “This is not a great time to be spending more money on anything. I don’t know if we can afford to spend any more money on keeping track of graduation rates, but we will certainly intensify all the things we are already doing.”

Through all the concerns brought on by these new graduation calculations, Schoenlein is still able to find the silver lining.

“An educated, trained workforce is good for our society, for our future and our community,” Schoenlein said. “We’ll just have to suck it up and work harder. It’s a good cause and a good thing; we should be graduating all of our kids and moving them on to advanced education and training.”