Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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EDUCATION:

Clark County graduation rates may not have been as bad as previously thought

Nevada’s “cohort” four-year graduation rate formula

In 2011, Nevada adopted a new graduation rate formula, which is used by all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Nevada’s graduation rates prior of 2011 were calculated without transfer students in the equation.

Graduation Rate = (Number of graduates in the Class of 2013) / (Number of incoming freshmen in the Class of 2013 + Students who transfer in - Students who successfully transfer out)

CCSD’s graduating Class of 2013, by the numbers

• Number of incoming freshmen in 2009: 22,648

• Number of graduates in 2013: 16,194

• Increase in the number of graduates from 2012 to 2013: 900

• Official Class of 2013 graduation rate: 71.5 percent

• Number of “successful transfers” in 2013: 5,411

• Number of “successful transfers” in 2012: 3,463

• Number of "successful transfers" in 2011: 4,220

For years, the Clark County School District was criticized for its low graduation rates, which scraped along the bottom of the nation.

However, Clark County’s graduation rates may not have been as bad as previously thought, according to a Las Vegas Sun analysis.

For at least the past two years, the Clark County School District may have reported an artificially low graduation rate because it incorrectly classified hundreds of students who had moved away as high school dropouts.

This error came to light on Monday when the Nevada Education Department reported that Clark County’s high school Class of 2013 posted a 71.5 percent graduation rate, a 16 percent jump from the previous year.

This huge increase surprised many in the public. The School District had only improved by 4 percent the prior year – from 59.4 percent in the Class of 2011 to 61.6 percent in the Class of 2012.

However, the jump seemed more dramatic that it probably should have, because the School District’s previously reported graduation rates were probably lower than they should have been.

“We were hurting ourselves by not taking the extra step to make sure every student in every classroom was counted,” Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky admitted earlier this week. “From now on, we have to be accountable for every student.”

•••

Historically, the School District has struggled to account for all of its students. Typically, between a third to 40 percent of students transfer in and out of Las Vegas schools every year.

In the past, students who transferred to another school, moved to another state, or died were sometimes considered dropouts, which counted against the district when the state calculated its graduation rate.

Starting under former Superintendent Dwight Jones and refined under Skorkowsky, the district began taking additional measures to find out whether its absent students really dropped out, or in fact moved out of state or transferred to another school.

School attendance officers and administrators scoured students’ emergency contacts and social media accounts to investigate where they could have disappeared. Schools called family members and even knocked on doors to ascertain the whereabouts of thousands of absent students.

In many cases, school officials found that students had moved to another state, and simply forgotten to inform district officials. High schools requested transfer forms and transcripts from other districts to verify families’ claims and officially classify them as "successful transfers" out of the district.

Implementing these new student tracking measures was an enormous and tedious undertaking, given the district’s large student population and outdated student information system.

But in the end, the work paid off.

•••

The School District found hundreds of anomalies in its student data.

Most schools found students who had successfully transferred to another program. One student, who was thought to have dropped out of school, was actually found enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, Skorkowsky said.

Some high schools found students who had already graduated in their attendance rolls.

In a few cases, school officials found several of their absent students had in fact died.

“That was the sad part,” Leslie Arnold, the district’s assistant superintendent of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement, said. “Finding students who passed away in a car wreck.”

Some schools reported huge swings in the number of transfer students, who don’t count against the district in the state's graduation rate formula.

Green Valley High School, which had reported 41 transfers in 2012, reported 182 transfers in 2013.

Other schools have reported increasing numbers of transfer students in recent years.

Chaparral High School – a turnaround campus that saw a 28 percent increase in the graduation rate in the last two years – reported 61 transfers in 2011, 130 in 2012 and 188 in 2013.

After going through and cleaning up their student records, the School District found 5,411 “successful transfers” in the Class of 2013, nearly 2,000 more transfers than the previous year.

Altogether, these transfers helped push the district’s graduation rate, which had been less than two-thirds of its students in the past, up to 71.5 percent – almost on par with the national average of 74.7 percent.

The School District attributed the graduation rate increase primarily to better student accounting. However, officials also touted a myriad of programs aimed at helping struggling seniors pass their exams and classes.

Schools created individualized graduation plans for at-risk seniors and enrolled them into proficiency “boot camps” before and after school, and even on Saturdays and in the summer. Community and business groups came together to mentor students, encouraging them to finish high school.

As a result, 900 more students graduated in 2013 than the previous year, continuing a decade-long trend. For the past 10 years, the School District has produced more high school graduates year over year.

•••

So what does this mean for previous years’ graduation rates?

For the high school Classes of 2011 and 2012, it’s impossible to know how many students were incorrectly classified as dropouts when in fact they might have been transfer students.

But let’s say all 56 Clark County high schools had found the same number of transfer students in 2011 and 2012 as they did in 2013.

What would the graduation rates for the Classes of 2011 and 2012 have been?

If the district had found 5,411 transfers instead of 4,220 in the Class of 2011, their graduation rate would have been 62.3 percent – not the officially reported 59.3 percent.

If the district had found 5,411 transfers instead of 3,463 in the Class of 2012, their graduation rate would have been 66.8 percent – not the officially reported 61.6 percent.

That means Clark County would have been improving at a steady clip of about 7 percent each year for the past two years.

Regardless of what the graduation rate would have been based on more accurate numbers of transfers and dropouts, Clark County’s graduation rate is still too low, Skorkowsky said.

“We’re on our way, but we still have to do a better job,” Skorkowsky said. “We have to do better because we did not graduate every student who was a senior last year.”

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