Friday, April 19, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Clark County School District took a gamble last June when it announced its estimated high school graduation rate for the class of 2012.
Typically, school districts in Nevada release their preliminary four-year graduation rates in the fall. That's because by September or October, districts have a good idea of the size of their graduating class, including the number of seniors who graduated over the summer.
However, amid community pressure and, perhaps, an eagerness to demonstrate positive gains, Clark County announced its preliminary graduation rate four months early.
In a major news conference, the district touted an estimated graduation rate of 64.9 percent for the class of 2012 — a 5.5 percentage point increase from the previous year.
This marked improvement was cause for much celebration in a district that had renewed its focus on graduation rates, traditionally among the lowest in the nation. For the next eight months, district officials pointed to the reported increase as strong proof the district was heading in the right direction.
Fast forward to last week, when the Nevada Department of Education announced final graduation rates for the state's 17 school districts.
While many school districts in Nevada release preliminary graduation rates in the fall, those rates are not certified until the numbers have been vetted by the state — a process that usually takes between three and four months to complete.
The Nevada education department found that Clark County still had the worst graduation rate in the state. Not only that, the department found Clark County's initial graduation calculations to be inaccurate.
Instead of posting a graduation rate of 64.9 percent as originally estimated, Clark County's actual graduation rate was 61.6 — a discrepancy of 3.3 percentage points.
Instead of a 5.5 percentage point improvement in Clark County's graduation rate as originally thought, the School District improved by 2.2 percent from 2011.
The Las Vegas schools' remarkable improvement wasn't so remarkable after all. Critics once again began accusing the district of inflating its graduation rates to paint a better picture and mislead the public.
How did this discrepancy happen? And what does this mean for Clark County's reform efforts?
Calculating the graduation rate is not as easy as one might think.
Two years ago, Nevada began using a different formula that educators contend is a more accurate measurement than its predecessor. In previous years, many students who transferred or dropped out before their senior year weren't included in the "leaver" calculation.
The new "cohort" formula follows students across all four years of high school, which has forced school districts to track students from their freshman year, recording whether they stayed in school, transferred to another school or dropped out.
Tracking students — there are 311,000 students in K-12 in Clark County schools — has been a challenge for the nation's fifth-largest school district, officials contend. Clark County's high transiency rate doesn't help; roughly a third of students move at least once each year — and often without informing the district.
Since the cohort formula was adopted two years ago, schools have been scrambling to find records for thousands of students who seemingly vanished from the district's books four years ago.
This has meant schools are requesting transcripts from other districts and states, and verifying with family members about students' whereabouts.
That's why a graduation rate calculation is like a municipal budget: a snapshot in time. As students move in and out of the district and records are updated, the graduation rate can fluctuate widely.
"You're always going to get better data later," said Leslie Arnold, the district's director of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement. "That's frankly the reason why the numbers are different."
The cohort rate is calculated by dividing the number of graduates in a class by the size of the class during their freshman year.
In June, Clark County reported that its class of 2012 began as freshmen in 2008 with 23,078 students.
Of these students, the district estimated about 15,000 graduates. That's how the district got to the 65 percent graduation rate.
However, as schools checked in with families and other school districts, Clark County was held responsible for more students.
By the time the state finalized its graduation rate figures in late February, CCSD’s class of 2012 as freshman had "grown" to 24,715 students. That's 1,637 more students than the district had initially recorded.
So although Clark County had estimated its number of graduates fairly accurately — 15,294 graduates at final count, as verified by the state — it was hurt by the number of freshmen counted toward its graduation rate.
This difference in both the number of graduates and freshman class size is the reason the state got to the lower graduation rate.
These swings in graduation rate calculations aren't common in Nevada's rural districts, which are better able to track their smaller student populations.
It's a different story for the large and urban Clark and Washoe counties, which together educate 85 percent of Nevada's students.
When the state began looking at graduation data last October, it initially had calculated Washoe's graduation rate to be 62.6 percent.
After cleaning up and verifying the data, the state found Washoe's actual graduation rate to be 69.6 percent, a marked difference of 7.3 percentage points from the state's original estimate.
"It's always a back and forth to determine if it's right," said Julian Montoya, the Nevada education department's deputy director of accountability. "That's why we're always worried if someone (releases graduation rate results) prior to our release."
This year's graduation rate discrepancy has been a learning experience for Clark County School District officials.
Last winter — when they first heard word from the state about a possible discrepancy — district officials decided they no longer would release any preliminary figures until they have been verified by the state.
The district had felt pressured to release preliminary graduation rates before all the numbers came in, School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said. It weighed the pros and cons of being transparent with the community by releasing preliminary information and being vigilant about the accuracy of the data it was releasing.
Ultimately, the district gave in, Fulkerson said.
"We found ourselves under a lot of pressure to demonstrate results, especially around graduation time," she said. "The media and the community wanted it now. We wanted to be able to tell our employees and the community how we were doing."
It was not the district's intent to mislead the public, nor was it fabricating or inflating its graduation rate, Fulkerson said.
"It was our best estimate at the time," she said. "We made a good-faith estimate."
The 3.3 percentage point difference in Clark County's estimates and the state's final figures is within the typical margin of error, Fulkerson said. Many political polls have built-in margins of error that are about the same, if not higher, she added.
Despite not improving as much as originally thought, Clark County still showed some improvement, which was a "positive thing," Fulkerson said.
The School District was one of seven in Nevada that saw improvement in its graduation rate from the prior year.
Clark County also graduated 652 more students in 2012 than in 2011. That's equivalent to graduating two high school classes worth of students.
Clark County also saw significant graduation rate increases in its minority student populations.
• Black students posted an 8.5 percent gain
• Native American students posted a 5.9 percent increase
• Hispanic, Asian and white students all posted about a 2 percentage point increase — similar to the district's overall increase.
And for the first time in many years, the Las Vegas community rallied behind its seniors.
Principals were ordered to identify at-risk seniors and develop individual plans to help them graduate. Teachers poured their energy into proficiency exam preparation, including Saturday boot camps. Community members mentored struggling students and helped school officials go door to door to encourage dropouts to return to school.
"We are encouraged by the small gains in the overall graduation rate, but we recognize the fact that we have a lot of work to do before we ensure the success of every student in every classroom," Interim Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said in a statement released last week. "Our graduation rate is no longer about a number — it's about individual students. And 652 students how have a brighter future thanks to the support of our staff, parents and community."
How did Washoe County fare?
Ben Hayes, Washoe County School District's director of assessment and research, said the Reno-based school district announced a preliminary graduation rate of 69 percent in September.
As it turned out, the district's guess wasn't far off from the state's final graduation rate of 69.6 percent.
How was Washoe able to nail down its estimate? There are several reasons:
• Unlike Clark, Washoe had spent the three summer months analyzing its school data before releasing a preliminary graduation rate.
• Washoe is a smaller school district, which makes it a bit easier to track students. Washoe has 15 high schools as opposed to Clark County's 49. Washoe's student population also is about one-fifth the size of Clark's.
• Washoe updated its student information system two years ago, something that Clark is now undergoing. The new information system helped Washoe track its students more easily.
• Washoe has several years of experience with the "cohort" formula under its belt. Washoe has been calculating its graduation rate using the cohort formula since 2007, four years before the rest of the state.
"It's a tough transition," Hayes said of the cohort graduation formula and data systems. "It took us two to three years to get a good data system. There are some growing pains."
Although Washoe may have correctly estimated its graduation rate, its graduation rate fell by 0.4 percent from the previous year. Clark County posted a 2.2 percentage point increase in its graduation rate.