Two of Proviso District 209’s schools saw their graduation rates plummet, thanks to a new criterion that only factors in students who earn diplomas in four years.
Last week, the Illinois State Board of Education released its annual report cards, which, among other things, track student achievement and performance, measure the finances of districts and schools, and include graduation rates. According to the 2011 report card, Proviso East and West high schools each saw their graduation rates decline by nearly 30 percentage points from the previous year – largely because of a new federal formula rolled out for the 2010-2011 school year.
The graduation rate is now 66.5 percent at Proviso West, and 60.1 percent at Proviso East. A year before, each school had significantly higher graduation rates, with West seeing 100 percent of its students receive a diploma, and East 89.4 percent.
The recent figures derailed nearly 10 years of steady gains in the graduation rates at both East and West and throughout the district. But those rates were determined using a different formula.
Back in 2004, a national panel of experts on graduation-rate calculations recommended that states adopt a formula that tracks students who finish school in four years.
Following this recommendation, the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008, amended rules to the No Child Left Behind Act, and mandated that states adopt a version of the four-year formula when determining graduation rates for the 2010-2011 school year.
One part of the new formula, as it is being applied in Illinois, takes the number of students graduating in four years, and divides that amount by the number of first-time ninth-graders who were in that graduating class (students who transferred in later or left the school before graduating are added to or subtracted from the denominator).
Essentially, an “adjusted cohort” of students is being tracked through their high school careers and must finish in four years in order to be among this year’s graduates.
The old formula took the number of graduating seniors and divided it by the number of kids who were in that class four years ago. Student transfers were part of the formula, but the graduates who were factored into the equation weren’t always students who finished in four years, as is the case now.
A 2008 Department of Education report on the program states that it was created in an attempt to establish a “uniform and accurate” way of computing graduation rates throughout the country.
“An adjusted cohort graduation rate will improve our understanding of the characteristics of the population of students who do not earn regular high school diplomas or who take longer than four years to graduate,” the report states.
“We [state board of education] are for some common ground on data,” said Mary Fergus, spokesperson for the state board of education. “We like … the benefit of having data that is comparable from one state to another.”
Earlier this year, Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education and former Chicago Public Schools CEO, said the formula is “simply being more honest” about graduation rates.
At Proviso East and West, though, the new formula lowers their respective rates.
Under the old formula, East made progress every year, except for one, from 2001 to 2010. In 2001, the graduation rate was 65.8 percent, and by 2010 it had climbed all the way to 89.4 percent.
During that time, West saw a bit more fluctuation; however, there were increases made each year between 2007 and 2010. In 2009 and 2010, West saw 100-percent graduation rates. But some of the students who graduated at both schools during that period did so in more than four years.
The most recent graduation rate, district wide, dipped significantly. The 2011 report card calculated the graduation rate at 67.3 percent, a drop of 28.9 percentage points from the previous year, when 96.2 percent of D209 seniors finished high school.
Despite the sharp declines, D209 spokesperson TaQuoya Kennedy said the district considers the new formula “a good thing” because it increases accuracy and consistency.
She explained in an email: “We anticipated that, with the new state’s formula graduation rates would decline, [so] we have gotten ahead of the curb … by expanding opportunities for students to take recovery and acceleration courses during summer school, implementing new methods of credit recovery, improving instruction to make courses more meaningful, improving our overall school climate so that students are excited about being in school and learning, and we also continue to advocate for things like the transportation program to help remove barriers that keep students from coming to school.”
Truancy has long been an issue at Proviso schools: At Proviso East, for example, 27.4 percent of the students were truant last school year, according to the 2011 report card, meaning they were absent for at least 18 days.
D209’s schools also face hurdles in terms of student achievement. According to the most recent data, none of the high schools made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP), according to federal achievement standards. Based on Prairie State Achievement exams, East and West did not hit the benchmark for the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards set by the state board of education.
Nonetheless, D209 is working to improve, Kennedy said.
“At District 209, we are continuing to do everything that we can to ensure that strategies and initiatives that we have in place to support our students and increase graduation rates are effective,” she said.