Graduation data difficult to analyze

Posted July 20, 2010, at 10:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — High school graduation rate data released this week by the Maine Department of Education revealed that Maine high schools fall across a wide spectrum in terms of how many students graduate and how many don’t.

With graduation rates ranging from 60.5 percent at Lewiston High School to 100 percent at tiny North Haven Community School, which granted diplomas to all seven of its seniors in 2009, it’s obvious that there are vast differences in the success of Maine communities in educating students.

What’s not so clear, according to education officials, is exactly what factors cause high numbers at one school or low numbers at another. That question is at the core of a long-standing debate in the Legislature and across Maine about whether some students receive a better education than others because of the size of their districts or the affluence of their communities.

“There’s no bigger issue than making sure that students across Maine have an equitable education and have the same chance of graduating from high school,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “What this data is going to do is validate what schools are doing better than others. We’re not in the dark anymore and just feeling around and guessing with everyone skeptical about what our methodology is.”

Before this week’s release of the graduation data, various high schools measured their performance in different ways. Because of factors such as families moving in or out of a district or students taking more than four years to graduate, comparisons between school districts were often problematic. The numbers released Monday all rely on the same formula: how many ninth-graders who entered a given high school together graduated in four years.

“There’s always been a great debate about how you calculate graduation rates,” said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, the House chairwoman of the Education Committee. “To really understand our graduation rates, I think this formula really gives a much more realistic picture.”

Alfond and Sutherland agreed that even with these apples-to-apples data, it’s not obvious whether there exists an urban-rural, north-south or rich town-poor town divide. There are enough exceptions going both ways to indicate other factors are at play.

One illustration of that, according to Sutherland, is three high schools in Aroostook County that are close in both geography and socioeconomics.

Washburn High School has a graduation rate of 83.3 percent while Caribou High School’s rate is 81.9 percent and Fort Fairfield’s is 64.9 percent. Of those districts, Washburn spends the least on its secondary program with a per-pupil cost of $10,502, according to data on the Department of Education’s website. Caribou and Fort Fairfield spend more with $11,077 and $11,341 in secondary per-pupil costs, respectively.

John Bapst Memorial High School has the highest graduation rate in the Bangor area at 96 percent, followed by Brewer High School, 76.5 percent; Bangor High School, 71.6 percent; and Orono High School, 70.8 percent.

If socioeconomics or per-pupil spending were major factors in graduation rates, schools close to each other would have more consistent numbers, said Sutherland.

In another illustrative example, Van Buren District Secondary School in extreme northern Maine, one of the poorer areas of the state, has a graduation rate of 87.8 percent, which is within about 1 percent of comparatively rich Hampden Academy just outside Bangor, whose rate is 88.9 percent. Both schools are well above the average statewide graduation rate of 80.4 percent.

Dr. David Silvernail, director of the University of Southern Maine Center for Education Policy, also serves as the chief analyst for the Legislature’s Education Committee. He said that contrary to claims he has heard countless times, there are no hard-and-fast divides in Maine when it comes to education opportunities in various parts of the state.

“Whenever we’ve looked into that, we’ve found that there really is no pattern,” he said. “If you take just our larger high schools, you can find examples that have high graduation rates and those that don’t. There are higher-performing small schools and there are higher-performing large schools. It’s really what happens inside the schools that determine[s] their success, not just the size or location.”

Silvernail said education spending in a given area also does not correlate directly to a high school’s performance.

“For me, it just reinforces that it really depends on how the money is spent,” he said. “It’s how the curriculum is delivered that makes a difference.”

Alfond, who sponsored a successful bill in the last legislative session that calls for all of Maine’s high schools to attain graduation rates of at least 90 percent by 2016, said his focus should he be re-elected will be identifying the best practices used by the top-performing high schools and spreading those techniques across the state.

“Using this data, we can figure out how those practices can be transferred to other schools,” he said. “Now we can start digging into our most exemplar schools and seeing what they’re doing well. To draw any conclusions at this point is premature.”

For a complete list of Maine high schools graduation rates for the 2008-2009 school year, visit the Maine Department of Education’s website at www.maine.gov/education/gradrates/gradrate0809.html.

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