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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

EDUCATION MATTERS

Does Toledo outperform Syracuse? It depends

Each state uses its own formula to calculate graduation rates -- with vastly different results

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- On the surface, Syracuse should envy Toledo. The northwest Ohio city has already achieved the most prominent goal of its New York counterpart's Say Yes campaign: raise the graduation rate.

Using each state's calculations, Toledo seems to vastly outperform Syracuse. The Toledo Public School District's graduation rate in 2008-2009 was nearly 84 percent, a number that, although lower than in recent years, is a vast improvement from the district's abysmal rate in 1996-1997 of 58 percent.

But is Toledo really that much better than Syracuse at graduating students? That depends on how you look at it.

The comparison between the two cities is a case study in the lack of uniformity in education statistics in the United States. Each state uses its own process to determine a graduation rate.

Ohio uses an estimated cohort rate calculation, taking a current year graduation class, minus calculations for recorded withdrawals in the four prior years.

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It's not an exact calculation, and other estimates on graduation rates produce vastly different returns.

Take, for instance, a measure used by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. Using a measure called the average freshman graduation rate -- which divides the number of graduates by an estimate of the size of a freshman class four years prior -- the center estimated that 46 percent of Toledo students graduated on time at the end of the 2006-2007 school year.

In that year, Ohio reported Toledo's graduation rate as nearly 88 percent.

A 2007 report by Education Week magazine listed the 2003-04 graduation rate for Toledo at 37 percent, compared with the state-reported figure of 70 percent.

In contrast, the state of New York measures graduation rates in a fashion similar to the National Center for Education Statistics, which means that if Toledo were in the Empire State, its graduation rate probably would be much closer to 45 percent than what is reported by Ohio.

Many states, not just Ohio, have long been accused of inflating their graduation rates for both public relations purposes and to avoid a rise in schools listed as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Yet Ohio officials have argued that estimates such as those used by the national center are unfair to urban districts such as Toledo's that offer a number of school-choice options. The estimate ignores students who leave the Toledo Public School District for a charter school, private school, or another area district.

The debate about graduation rates is soon to get more complicated.

Ohio will use a new formula this year to measure graduation rates, after 2008 changes by the federal government in reporting requirements. Those new measurements will show up on state report cards but won't immediately affect district ratings, such as Toledo's designation last year of continuous improvement.

Instead of a cohort estimation, Ohio's new model will track individual students using unique identification numbers from their freshman year to determine if they graduated on time, moved to a different school, or dropped out.

State officials expect that new formula will cause reported graduation rates in some districts to dip.

"There's no doubt that I think school districts are bracing themselves," Patrick Gallaway, spokesman for the education department, said.

Toledo's interim chief academic officer, Jim Gault, said graduation results are not yet available from the state for the 2009-2010 graduation class -- Ohio lags graduation rate reports by a year -- so there's no way to know how Toledo will fare under the new system.

Without knowing the results, Mr. Gault said it's too soon to comment specifically on the new calculations, only saying he hoped the new formula would be fair and accurate.

Whatever the rate, Mr. Gault said the Toledo district is moving aggressively to reduce the dropout rate and to offer alternative routes to students to graduate on time.

And that, state officials said, is the approach they hope school districts take if their graduation rates drop.

"There's a way to embrace this," Mr. Gallaway said. "That even though our number may have dropped … we can turn this around and say this is what we need to work on."



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