By Cathryn Creno, Arizona Republic, June 17, 2013
Arizona ranks ninth from the bottom in a new national report on high-school graduation rates.
Using numbers from 2010, a report called “Diplomas Count” ranks Arizona’s graduation rate 43rd on a list of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The report, compiled by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, of Bethesda, Md., says Arizona’s graduation rate in 2010 was 67.2 percent — about seven percentage points lower than the national average of 74.7 percent.
The report shows that Arizona’s graduation numbers have improved by more than 5 percent since 2000, when the state had an average graduation rate of 62.2 percent. Nationally, the high-school graduation rate is up 7.9 percent in the same time period.
Arizona Department of Education officials say while they disagree with the report’s specific numbers — they use a different calculation method that resulted in a graduation rate of 75.4 percent in 2010 — they don’t argue with the report’s conclusion: Arizona schools need to do more to help students earn diplomas that help them gain entrance to college or start technical careers.
“We don’t want to award diplomas to just any warm body,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal. “We want Arizona’s diplomas to be a measure of quality education.”
Getting to the root of why students leave high school without diplomas is complex, Huppenthal said.
Reasons can include frustration because of academic problems, a lack of social connections or financial needs that force students to leave school to work, he said.
“When a student drops out it needs to be a wake-up call,” he said.
Erin Hart, chief operating officer of the non-profit education-advocacy group Expect More Arizona, said she believes the “Diplomas Count” results show a number of things, including that the state needs to spend more money on education and focus more resources on career and technical education to retain students who don’t plan to attend college.
“It’s time we place a higher priority on education in Arizona,” she said.
Arizona spends $7,848 per pupil annually, $2,767 less than the $10,615 national average, according to a report last year by the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. Arizona ranks 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the report.
Some districts improve
Two districts that have dramatically improved their graduation rates in recent years are the Phoenix Union High School District and the Peoria Unified School District in the West Valley.
Phoenix Union has spent $2.2 million annually on programs including outreach by social workers to students who leave school before graduating and two specialty schools that work with students who struggle in larger settings, said district spokesman Craig Pletenik.
The district’s graduation rate went from being in the 50 percent range throughout the 1990s to 83.9 percent in 2010, he said.
For some students, Pletenik said, simply developing a relationship with a caring teacher or having a place at school to pick up breakfast foods and some toothpaste makes the difference between staying in school or dropping out.
Peoria has increased its graduation rate to 93 percent with programs including one that began in 2006 called My Life. It helps middle-school students start thinking about careers that interest them and plan relevant coursework.
“Peoria’s graduation rate has gone from the 80s into the 90s,” Huppenthal said. “Vision is the Number 1 predictor of success in school. It’s much more predictive than test scores.”
Other programs around the state with a goal of reducing drop-out numbers and increasing graduation rates include:
A technical education program at the Kayenta Unified School District in northern Arizona’s Navajo Reservation. The program, at Monument Valley High School, teaches students math and science skills that help them pass a graduation test while gaining career experience working as assistants in a veterinary clinic. Many graduates, Huppenthal said, go on to train as vet techs or go to college to become veterinarians.
The Valley of the Sun YMCA’s i-Learn Program, which recently received $50,000 from the Walmart Foundation for a dropout recovery program. The program allows students who struggle at regular high schools to take online classes at YMCAs throughout the Valley and earn diplomas through Arizona Virtual Academy.
Mesa Public Schools will begin a flexible-schedule program in August for students with employment or family obligations that don’t allow them to attend classes during the normal school day. The program, at East Valley Academy, will allow students to enroll in classes at any time during the school year and attend classes six days a week until 7:30 p.m.
Huppenthal said the state recently created programs meant to help students graduate. Move on When Ready allows accelerated students to earn “Grand Canyon Diplomas” as early as 10th grade. And a new Dropout Recovery effort allows school districts to track down and encourage dropouts to return to school and complete their graduation requirements, even if it takes a fifth year.
Observers, however, say it is not clear whether these or other programs will help boost Arizona’s graduation rate in the future.
This year’s Class of 2013 was the first required to take four years of math instead of three in order to graduate. Earning a high school diploma could become even harder in 2015, when Arizona is expected to drop the AIMS in favor of a test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC exam.
The PARCC is expected to be an online assessment in math, reading and writing that will include essay-style questions in addition to multiple choice.
Huppenthal said he believes the Arizona State Board of Education, which sets student testing policies, should find a way to ensure that the PARCC does not keep otherwise qualified students from graduating.
“The state board is going to have to think very carefully about this test,” he said. “It should not be something that stops students from graduating.”