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District confronts reality of poor high school graduation rates

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

In this file photo, members of the class of 2009 ceremoniously toss their caps into the evening sky during a commencement ceremony at Boulder City High School.

Updated Saturday, June 11, 2011 | 2:47 p.m.

Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

When Dwight Jones was hired last November to be superintendent of the Clark County School District, he promised honesty and transparency to win over a distrustful and suspicious community.

Now, School District officials are acknowledging what critics have long suspected — that high school graduation figures have for years been inflated to paint a better picture than actually existed.

“We’ve known for a long time the community has been challenging some of the data that the district was coming out with,” said Pedro Martinez, Jones’ recently hired deputy superintendent of instruction.

“We need to have the trust of the community, the parents and all of the district’s employees,” he said. “The reality is when the data are not clear, then frankly people mistrust it. The new superintendent came in and said we’re going to find out the real numbers. Whatever the truth is that’s what we’re going to put out there.”

The issue became pointed this week when Education Week magazine reported that Clark County’s public school graduation rate was 44.3 percent in 2008, not the 68 percent figure that had been reported under Jones’ predecessor, Walt Rulffes. That’s a difference of 24 percentage points.

The results reported by Education Week were drawn from a mix of numbers reported to state and federal education officials, and they highlight the challenges Jones and his executive team face in rebuilding communitywide trust, especially among those who have claimed for years that the district has inflated graduation rates.

“Twenty-four percentage points. How did this happen?” Jones said as he spoke with visitors to his office. He is searching for answers.

Was it the doubling of the district’s student population to more than 300,000 students over 10 years? Fallout from the economy? The influx of foreign-born students? A function of per-pupil spending levels? The disruption of student and educator routine sparked by the monthly opening of new schools during the boom? The promise of service sector jobs that do not require diplomas? Or some combination of things?

“The causes are probably far and wide,” Jones said. “I can’t Band-Aid it. I can’t mess around on the fringes. The community has to understand it is going to take time to do it. It’s a big ship to turn.”

Rulffes said that during his five-year tenure, which ended when he retired and the district hired Jones, district administrators were open and honest with the numbers and provided the state Education Department with graduation numbers required by the state formula.

“I don’t have any dispute with the fact that the graduation rate is low,” Rulffes said. “I think it’s shamefully low, and I said that 1,000 or 2,000 times during my reign. I do have some concerns about the connotation or suggestion that we were inflating graduation rates at the district level. That simply was not true. We were submitting the data specifically required by the state formula.”

The 44.3 percent graduation rate compared with a national average graduation rate of 71.7 percent, placing Nevada third on Education Week’s list of “Dropout Epicenters,” trailing public school systems in New York City and Los Angeles.

An aide to Jones contacted Education Week researchers, who wrote the report, to gauge the accuracy and origin of the numbers. “However they figured out the data, they figured it out the same way for the every other state,” Jones said. “So the next question becomes — what are we going to do about it?”

Click to enlarge photo

Walt Rulffes

Rulffes placed the School District’s 2008 high school graduation rate at 68 percent. The Reno-based Washoe County School District put its figure at 65 percent that year. The two account for 85 percent of the state’s public school student population.

Clark County's accounting techniques sparked criticism from community groups, concerned district employees and others. Critics pointed to the conclusions of national studies by Johns Hopkins University, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Education Week, each placing the School District’s graduation rate closer to 50 percent.

Jones and Martinez have adopted a new formula to determine the district’s high school graduation rate, one that reflects a new nationwide standard adopted by the National Governors Association. The formula is expected to lower this past year’s previously reported rate from 68 percent to 51 percent, a number they say reflects reality. The goal is to establish true accountability for the failure of students, a troubling reality that finds just 1 in 10 ninth-graders eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, or about half the national average. The number is significantly lower for Hispanic and black students.

Education Week drew its conclusions from figures reported to the U.S. Education Department. The publication’s formula reflects the National Governors Association approach by measuring yearly promotions during the first three years of high school followed by graduation rates for the final year of public school. Students were counted as dropouts if they disappeared without an accurate accounting of their whereabouts.

The publication’s senior research editor, Sterling Loyd, noted that Nevadans should be “quite concerned” about the state’s dramatic decline, saying Nevada fits into a troubled group of states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and South Carolina, a reality that will concern anyone about the economic future of children and the diversification of the state’s economy. Attractive out-of-state employers typically seek educated workers and good public schools for their children.

Boys fared much worse than girls in the Education Week numbers, with just 39.6 percent of Nevada’s male high school students graduating in 2008, the most recent year for which figures were available for all states. Female students graduated at a rate of 50.1 percent. The national averages were 74.7 percent for girls and 67.7 percent for boys. The numbers steadily declined by ethnicity, with black students in Nevada having a 33 percent graduation rate and Hispanics at 29.6 percent. White students recorded a 55.8 percent graduation rate.

Florida’s high school graduation numbers recorded one of the nation’s largest improvements in the country, a 12.4 percent jump in the percentage of students graduating during the 10-year period measured by Education Week, and may have been the beneficiary of education reform efforts pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“It’s hard to identify one reason as the cause but they did see improvements under Jeb Bush,” Loyd said. He pointed to enhanced data tracking systems adopted by Florida and Tennessee, which experienced a 20 percent jump between 1998 and 2008. The goal of such systems: identify failing and academically challenged children when they’re young and closely monitor their progress as they move from elementary to middle to high school.

A key player in Jones’ agenda for districtwide change and academic improvement, Martinez said it’s difficult to determine the effects that the region’s hyper-growth had on the performance of district students and employees from 1998 to 2008.

The district became a major land developer and personnel management company in addition to being an educator, and it’s clear, Martinez said, student performance suffered. Was there a cause and effect with the shifting emphases? Hard to say, Martinez replied. No matter, he reiterated the mantra: “We must own the numbers.”

There is one other number the Clark County School District will be forced to own: Education Week researchers project that 16,114 of the 29,368 students who began high school four years ago will not graduate this year.

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