AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s high school graduation rate is improving and ranks better than the national average, according to a recent analysis by Education Week, a prominent national magazine.
Education Week, which released figures this week for the Class of 2008, put Maine’s graduation rate at 76.5 percent, compared with the national average of 71.7 percent. The rate in Maine improved by almost 5 percentage points over a course of 10 years, according to Education Week’s analysis, giving Maine the 16th-highest graduation rate in the nation.
Maine education officials said the publication’s findings were encouraging, but stressed that they were one measure of a statistic that is far more complex than it seems. Various organizations and government bodies use different methods which account for everything from students who switch school systems to students who take longer than the traditional four years to earn high school diplomas.
The Maine Department of Education calculated its own high school graduation rate for the 2007-08 school year at about 83.5 percent, some 7 percentage points above what Education Week found. Further complicating the issue, the state altered its method of measuring graduation rates two years ago to conform with a directive from the U.S. Department of Education.
Once all states have made the switch, which is supposed to happen by next year, the new method will allow apples-to-apples comparisons among the states. However, in Maine the switch in methodology makes it difficult to compare current graduation rates with past years’, though Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the situation is improving.
“It’s good news, but it also points out how far we have to go,” said Bowen in a press release about the Education Week numbers. “We’re still fifth among the six New England States, and our rate of increase, while good, is slower than the national average.”
Rhode Island ranked last among the New England states with a graduation rate of 69.7 percent in 2008, up 0.3 percent from 1998. While Maine’s graduation rate increased 4.9 percentage points in 10 years, the national rate jumped 6.1 percentage points over the same period.
Because of the switch in the national method, there are only two years of relevant data so far with which to track the state’s graduation rates. From the 2008-09 school year to the 2009-10 school year, Maine’s graduation rate rose by more than 2 percentage points to about 82.8 percent, according to the Maine Department of Education.
“While the data show a noticeable improvement over the previous year, we can’t be satisfied when nearly one out of five students who enters ninth grade does not graduate in four years,” said Bowen in a press release from last month when the state released numbers based on the national method.
David Silvernail, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, said that Maine’s graduation rate is “edging up” and that changes under way will perpetuate that trend.
“Some of the most recent data we’ve been looking at is indicating that a high percentage of students who are not proficient in the eighth grade are still not proficient at the 11th-grade level,” said Silvernail. “For some reason those students are not making sufficient progress in high school.”
Tracking graduation rates is also complicated by factors that education experts do not understand, such as schools whose rates roller-coaster up and down from year to year. Those fluctuations tend to be the widest in rural schools, said Silvernail.
“It’s hard to know why,” he said. “Over time what we’re looking for is where are the trends in the schools and and are they going upward.”
In addition to using the new national formula, Maine schools by next year will be required to participate in a “Response to Intervention” program which requires schools to identify and enact support programs for struggling students as soon as possible. According to Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, many Maine schools already have such programs and virtually all of them will be on board by the next academic year.