Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's high school graduation rates vary significantly under a new federal calculation that all states are required to use this year, according to a recent report.
This year, the federal Department of Education is mandating that all states use the same formula to calculate graduation rates. Most states, including Utah, previously used individualized plans, which made national comparisons difficult and sometimes inaccurate.
Under the new calculation, Utah's total 2010 graduation rate was 75 percent, yet the old formula showed a 90 percent rate for the same year. Utah's 2011 graduation rate under the federal calculation was 76 percent.
"It's a change in the calculation, not a change in the student behavior," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent over student services and federal programs.
Park said the new formula broadens the definition of a nongraduate beyond simply those students who drop out. For instance, the federal calculation considers GED recipients "nongraduates," whereas the state previously counted them as graduates.
"Of course it would be lower, because it's calculated so different," Park said.
While the 15-point disparity between the 2010 data was jarring the first time she saw it, Park said the state has a lot to be proud of. Under the new calculation, Utah beats out the national average, Park said. What's more, the state has seen marked improvement since 2008 and has increased its graduation rate by 7 percent in just four years.
"I think there's nothing there but cause for celebration," Park said.
Of the six large districts along the Wasatch Front, Canyons had the highest graduation rate with 83 percent. Davis was a close second with 82 percent, followed by Jordan with 79 percent, Alpine with 77 percent, Granite with 66 percent and Salt Lake City with 64 percent.
The federal graduation rate only includes students who receive a high school diploma or an adult education secondary diploma. Previously, the state's criteria for what constituted a "graduate" included students who transferred directly to higher education or the Utah College of Applied Technology without receiving a diploma. It also included GED recipients and special education students who participate in the Utah Alternative Assessment. The state's rate also did not include students who could not be located because they moved without contacting the school about the move. The federal rules now considers those students dropouts.
The state will still track the progress of the students the fed doesn't recognize as graduates, but they will now be known as "other completers."
"These are students who are performing," she said. "I think it's a huge disservice to even suggest that they're nongraduates."
A separate report released Tuesday showed median class sizes for elementary and secondary schools remained steady at 24 and 29, respectively. According to the report, schools with smaller class sizes fared better on end-of-the-year standardized tests than those with larger class sizes at both elementary and secondary levels.