Schools weren't dinged if students took more than four years to graduate. When students disappeared, they often were classified as transfers, even though some of them had actually dropped out. Many schools weren't required to document that transfers showed up somewhere else.
"You have to be honest with the data," said David Doty, superintendent of the Canyon School District in Utah. "If the data doesn't mean anything, there's no point in using it anyway."
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, used the National Governors Association to push for graduation rate changes while he led Virginia from 2002 to 2006. His motivation, he said, was a desire to see how his state stacked up.
Virginia was boasting 90 percent or better graduation rates during Warner's drive for a uniform rate, but that dropped to 81 when the new formula was adopted in 2008.
Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Education settled on a formula similar to the NGA's: the number of graduates in a given year, divided by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier. Also, schools must document transfer students or they'll artificially deflate the graduation rate.
Schools weren't necessarily being subversive in the way they calculated their rates, said Ryan Reyna, senior policy analyst with the National Governors Association. Many states used imperfect formulas because they couldn't track students who moved, which is being fixed with the addition of new state-level systems that identification numbers to each student.
Experts hope the changes will draw attention to the dropout issue and lead to resources being focused on the problem. That is happening in Kansas and other states, where officials are developing a system of early indicators to alert schools that a student is at risk.
"We're going to take an honest look in the mirror and see how real our graduation rate is and where we need to cut the dropout rate," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which has extensively studied the nation's hodgepodge system of graduation rates. "You've got to know how deep the hole is in order to develop a strategy for getting out of it."
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report. Turner reported from Atlanta.
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