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Connecticut Graduation Rates Not As Good As Thought, Tracking System Shows


March 24, 2010

HARTFORD - A new tracking system has found that the high school graduation rate in Connecticut is much worse than thought, with only 79.3 percent of students getting their diploma in four years in 2009.

The state had estimated that 92 percent of students graduated in four years in 2008, 2007 and 2006.

The 2009 graduation rate for minorities was dismal. Only 58.1 percent of Hispanic students and 66.2 percent of African American students graduated in four years, compared with 86.8 percent of white students. Low-income students fared poorly, as well, with only 59.9 percent getting their diploma in four years.

Education officials said Tuesday that the numbers demand immediate attention.

"While we have made this a priority in recent years, we must approach this issue with a sense of urgency," Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said in a statement.

"The alarming news is that the graduation rates are far lower than what the department had previously calculated," said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the education committee. "Thanks to legislation that we passed that requires them to track this now, we know where we stand."

The new data system tracks individual students, even those who move out of one school system and into another. As a result, the state has been able to get a more accurate picture of what is really happening.

Connecticut had previously estimated the graduation rate based on annual drop-out rates and data reported by school districts. Since 2006, the state has estimated the graduation rate at 92 percent, up slightly from estimates of 91 percent in 2005 and 90 percent in 2004.

The state began using the new data system after reaching an agreement with the National Governors Association and 49 other states to use the same criteria for calculating graduation rates.

Connecticut has been building a new system that can track each student by a numerical identifier as he or she moves from grade to grade and even school system to school system, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the education department. The new system avoids the problem of counting the same student twice as he or she moves from one district to another, a factor that threw off previous graduation estimates.

The 2009 data showed that Hispanics have one of the worst graduation rates, a trend Murphy attributed to poverty and limited proficiency in English. "Those two factors poverty and limited English proficiency are major factors in students not achieving academic success," he said. "If you don't know English, you're not going to be strong reader."

The data also reinforce Connecticut's notoriety as the state with the largest academic achievement gap in the nation. For instance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests show that Connecticut has the biggest achievement gap between Latino and white students in the country in eighth-grade math, and that black students lag 4.4 grades behind white students.

"We have known for a long time that graduation rates are much too low and, we lose kids, especially in troubled districts where we've lost more than 50 percent," said State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor.

The new data come at a time when a blizzard of school reform proposals are being considered, both in the state and nation. President Barack Obama is pushing a major revision of the No Child Left Behind school initiative that aims to better prepare students for college and careers. Connecticut and other school advocates are pushing their own reforms.

The legislature's education committee recently approved a bill that would overhaul secondary school education. Among its goals is more student engagement, such as requiring students to work with adults to write a success plan that maps out their goals and courses they need to take to reach them.

High school reform also would require students to earn more course credits, a challenge Taylor believes would help keep students engaged in high school.

"One of the things national studies have shown is that a high percentage of kids are passing classes but are not challenged by them or engaged with them," Taylor said.

Gaffey wasn't surprised by the new graduation rate data, but said he is pleased that it is now being tracked more closely.

"At least we have far better information now than we had before," he said, "but we still have to get to the root of the problem of kids' dropping out in Connecticut and work with parents that are going to be key in keeping their children in school.

"We need parents to become more deeply involved in their child's education and make sure they are attending school, getting there on time and, when they get home from school, that they are doing their homework. Parents need to step up to that task."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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