Educators point to funding losses for grad rate drop

The Everett School District has hit a speed bump after years of steady increases in the number of on-time high school graduation rates.

The district isn’t alone. It’s part of a statewide trend.

For Everett, the high point came in the 2008-09 school year, with 83.7 percent of students graduating in four years.

For the past two years, however, there’s been a decline — 81.6 in 2009-10 and 80.3 in the 2010-11 school year.

What happened?

“We’ve had massive budget cuts,” said Terry Edwards, the school district’s chief academic officer. Many of the cuts in state education money affected the school district’s ability to provide help to struggling students, he said.

“It used to be if a kid struggled with algebra, they would also get an algebra support class,” he said. After-school tutoring also was cut over the past two years, he said.

Meanwhile, class sizes increased. High school math classes that used to have 22 to 24 students now have about 30, Edwards said.

“It’s like the old game of how many sticks do you pull out before the tower falls down?” he said.

Everett isn’t alone. Marysville had a drop of 9.3 percentage points between the 2009-10 school year and the 2010-11 school year, from 77 percent to 67.7 percent.

But as Ray Houser, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, noted, that’s by a graduation accounting system that’s being phased out.

Under the new, federally required counting system, Marysville’s graduation rate was 71.8 percent for the 2010-11 school year, down a half percentage point from the previous year, he said.

The federal system allows school districts to more carefully track all students through high school, including those who transfer in, transfer out or drop out each year.

The old system was an estimate based on the number of dropouts, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state superintendent’s office.

However, the 2010-11 school year was the first year it was in effect. So for year-by-year comparisons over time, the old system is still used.

“It’s a tricky transition time as we make the switch,” Houser said. “It doesn’t change how many kids we graduated; it’s the way you look at the numbers.”

That’s why both types of counting systems are listed on the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website.

Nevertheless, two straight years of a decline in on-time graduation rates in the Everett School District set off alarm bells, Edwards said.

In January, the district used $372,000 in basic education and grant money to send extra help to each of its four high schools, including an extra math teacher at Cascade and Everett high schools. The money also paid for after school support to make sure students were getting all their assignments completed.

All schools provided transportation to any student who needed a ride home after staying for after-school work, Edwards said.

Next fall, the school district is spending $700,000 on similar programs, he said.

“The thing that most often keeps students from graduating is they didn’t pass their class,” Edwards said. The district’s summer school program helps students make up lost credits.

A downward trend in graduation rates also was found statewide, with the on-time graduation rate for the 2009-10 school year, 76.5 percent, declining to 75 percent for the 2010-11 school year, according to a March report by the office of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Students have varying rates of success with graduating on time.

In Washington, 78.2 percent of girls graduate in four years, while just 71.8 percent of boys do.

The groups of students who have the most trouble with on-time graduation are those who live in low-income families, those who have limited English skills and special education students, according to the state superintendent’s graduation report.

For example, slightly more than half — 52.2 percent — of students with limited English skills graduate on time.

Asians, whites and multi-ethnic students are among the groups with the best on-time graduation rates.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

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