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District confronts reality of poor high school graduation rates

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

In this file photo, members of the class of 2009 ceremoniously toss their caps into the evening sky during a commencement ceremony at Boulder City High School.

Updated Saturday, June 11, 2011 | 2:47 p.m.

Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

When Dwight Jones was hired last November to be superintendent of the Clark County School District, he promised honesty and transparency to win over a distrustful and suspicious community.

Now, School District officials are acknowledging what critics have long suspected — that high school graduation figures have for years been inflated to paint a better picture than actually existed.

“We’ve known for a long time the community has been challenging some of the data that the district was coming out with,” said Pedro Martinez, Jones’ recently hired deputy superintendent of instruction.

“We need to have the trust of the community, the parents and all of the district’s employees,” he said. “The reality is when the data are not clear, then frankly people mistrust it. The new superintendent came in and said we’re going to find out the real numbers. Whatever the truth is that’s what we’re going to put out there.”

The issue became pointed this week when Education Week magazine reported that Clark County’s public school graduation rate was 44.3 percent in 2008, not the 68 percent figure that had been reported under Jones’ predecessor, Walt Rulffes. That’s a difference of 24 percentage points.

The results reported by Education Week were drawn from a mix of numbers reported to state and federal education officials, and they highlight the challenges Jones and his executive team face in rebuilding communitywide trust, especially among those who have claimed for years that the district has inflated graduation rates.

“Twenty-four percentage points. How did this happen?” Jones said as he spoke with visitors to his office. He is searching for answers.

Was it the doubling of the district’s student population to more than 300,000 students over 10 years? Fallout from the economy? The influx of foreign-born students? A function of per-pupil spending levels? The disruption of student and educator routine sparked by the monthly opening of new schools during the boom? The promise of service sector jobs that do not require diplomas? Or some combination of things?

“The causes are probably far and wide,” Jones said. “I can’t Band-Aid it. I can’t mess around on the fringes. The community has to understand it is going to take time to do it. It’s a big ship to turn.”

Rulffes said that during his five-year tenure, which ended when he retired and the district hired Jones, district administrators were open and honest with the numbers and provided the state Education Department with graduation numbers required by the state formula.

“I don’t have any dispute with the fact that the graduation rate is low,” Rulffes said. “I think it’s shamefully low, and I said that 1,000 or 2,000 times during my reign. I do have some concerns about the connotation or suggestion that we were inflating graduation rates at the district level. That simply was not true. We were submitting the data specifically required by the state formula.”

The 44.3 percent graduation rate compared with a national average graduation rate of 71.7 percent, placing Nevada third on Education Week’s list of “Dropout Epicenters,” trailing public school systems in New York City and Los Angeles.

An aide to Jones contacted Education Week researchers, who wrote the report, to gauge the accuracy and origin of the numbers. “However they figured out the data, they figured it out the same way for the every other state,” Jones said. “So the next question becomes — what are we going to do about it?”

Click to enlarge photo

Walt Rulffes

Rulffes placed the School District’s 2008 high school graduation rate at 68 percent. The Reno-based Washoe County School District put its figure at 65 percent that year. The two account for 85 percent of the state’s public school student population.

Clark County's accounting techniques sparked criticism from community groups, concerned district employees and others. Critics pointed to the conclusions of national studies by Johns Hopkins University, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Education Week, each placing the School District’s graduation rate closer to 50 percent.

Jones and Martinez have adopted a new formula to determine the district’s high school graduation rate, one that reflects a new nationwide standard adopted by the National Governors Association. The formula is expected to lower this past year’s previously reported rate from 68 percent to 51 percent, a number they say reflects reality. The goal is to establish true accountability for the failure of students, a troubling reality that finds just 1 in 10 ninth-graders eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, or about half the national average. The number is significantly lower for Hispanic and black students.

Education Week drew its conclusions from figures reported to the U.S. Education Department. The publication’s formula reflects the National Governors Association approach by measuring yearly promotions during the first three years of high school followed by graduation rates for the final year of public school. Students were counted as dropouts if they disappeared without an accurate accounting of their whereabouts.

The publication’s senior research editor, Sterling Loyd, noted that Nevadans should be “quite concerned” about the state’s dramatic decline, saying Nevada fits into a troubled group of states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and South Carolina, a reality that will concern anyone about the economic future of children and the diversification of the state’s economy. Attractive out-of-state employers typically seek educated workers and good public schools for their children.

Boys fared much worse than girls in the Education Week numbers, with just 39.6 percent of Nevada’s male high school students graduating in 2008, the most recent year for which figures were available for all states. Female students graduated at a rate of 50.1 percent. The national averages were 74.7 percent for girls and 67.7 percent for boys. The numbers steadily declined by ethnicity, with black students in Nevada having a 33 percent graduation rate and Hispanics at 29.6 percent. White students recorded a 55.8 percent graduation rate.

Florida’s high school graduation numbers recorded one of the nation’s largest improvements in the country, a 12.4 percent jump in the percentage of students graduating during the 10-year period measured by Education Week, and may have been the beneficiary of education reform efforts pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“It’s hard to identify one reason as the cause but they did see improvements under Jeb Bush,” Loyd said. He pointed to enhanced data tracking systems adopted by Florida and Tennessee, which experienced a 20 percent jump between 1998 and 2008. The goal of such systems: identify failing and academically challenged children when they’re young and closely monitor their progress as they move from elementary to middle to high school.

A key player in Jones’ agenda for districtwide change and academic improvement, Martinez said it’s difficult to determine the effects that the region’s hyper-growth had on the performance of district students and employees from 1998 to 2008.

The district became a major land developer and personnel management company in addition to being an educator, and it’s clear, Martinez said, student performance suffered. Was there a cause and effect with the shifting emphases? Hard to say, Martinez replied. No matter, he reiterated the mantra: “We must own the numbers.”

There is one other number the Clark County School District will be forced to own: Education Week researchers project that 16,114 of the 29,368 students who began high school four years ago will not graduate this year.

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  1. LasVegas2011,

    Yes, taxpayers should be paying the cost of education since the ones being educated will one day be voters. That alone justifies it.

    If you want to make it a requirement that voters must pass the same US citizenship test that immigrants do then it might be okay to re-think the system in the manner you propose. But until then, it behooves us to make damn sure every child is educated.

    Keep this in mind, too. How many dropouts wind up on welfare? Who pays for that?

  2. If you want the graduation rates to go up you are going to have to demand that the kids show up for class, pay attention, do their school and home work and stop disrupting classes so that everyone has an equal chance of learning.

    Until you start making each and every child and their parents responsible for their actions you will never seen an increase in the graduation rates in this county.

    There was an article yesterday about the kids that had a chance at winning a new car. Those kids did not miss a single day of school and had 4.0+ grade averages. I guess showing up for school each day has something to do with those high grade point averages.

    Personal responsibility is all it takes and things will get much better at the schools and in Las Vegas in general.

  3. Kids that do not graduate from high school are really at a disadvantage in todays world. We need FDR's CCC to teach them self respect and a skill they can use...a Dropouts Boot Camp. While Washington scours the world putting its nose in other countries business they neglect the people at home. They have exploited us so now they need new horizons. Oh well, let's start another war.

  4. Americans in general, and Southern Nevadan's in particular, need to WAKE UP...

    Blaming your local school district for the ills of Society is not gonna get er' done.

    Graduation rates SUCK because students FAIL.
    They fail to come to school, they fail to pay attention, they fail to do their homework, they fail to understand the implications of NOT taking advantage of the opportunity to get educated.

    Our IMMENSE immigrant population, along with a lack of PARENTING by a percentage of all populations needs to be factored into your Blame Game scorecard...

    Do you suppose all the CCSD-educated kids going off to Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Georgetown, Duke and the like are complaining about their TEACHER???

    Quite contrarily, my friends.

  5. Instead of placing blame, I want you people to be rational and think a little bit deeper than you normally do (if at all possible):

    There are many states whose graduation rates are many times better than CCSD. Why?

    ----Is it the CCSD teachers? Think about it. There are only a handful of local teachers. Most of them were recruited from all over the US and some from abroad. What is it? Did they lose their "teacher ability" when they came here?

    -----Let us think about the community of those states with higher graduation rates. Compare them to Las Vegas. Got any clues there?

    -----Think about the parents and families of those states with higher graduation rates. Are you getting any hints?

    -----Think about the school systems in those states with higher graduation rates and the people who run those systems. You see any similarities?

    -----Think about their governor, their legislature. Any clues there?

    -----Look at their environment, their quality of life, their values. Do you even recognize them?

    If you can think as I ask, research if you need to, post here what you find and blame whomever you want, but please give Ceasar what is Ceasar's.

    But then again, thinking would probably be too much to ask.

  6. I am not lashing out - simply asking people to think. Not too many do, or are incapable.

    They find scapegoats instead of admitting why, who, what, and where the problem lies, absolving only themselves.

    Thank you.

  7. And just think, the Education Foundation gave Walt Ruffles a "Lifetime Achievement Award" when he retired. If this was his lifetime achievement, what does it say for his career?

    None the less, in my opinion parents have the most ability to improve education. The district needs to bring them into the process. If they don't respond, we will know which kids are most likely to have issues.

    Understand this is the first step of a very large staircase.

  8. I have been saying for a year the numbers coming from the district are unreliable. Their graduation rates, spending per student, building and improvement bids as well as their entire budget is not transparent.

    Their is no accoutability and you can't get a straight answer to simple questions. The only thing the district can say is...."we need more money".

  9. Turning the schools around is not a difficult proposition. It is fairly simple actually.
    the schools themselves are in the way, the state government is in the way, the unions are in the way. The schools have plenty of money, they have brand new buildings. They have I pads, but no books for the kids.

    The school unions will say they are not responsible for educating the children and they are right. But they are 50% of the reason the kids are not being educated.

    I demand accountability of the school system, the school board, the state legislature, past superintendents. The school district must be audited and formal charges brought to those who deserve them as the malfeasance appears to be Epidemic. The stinkin thinking that is going on in the schools must be scrubbed from the system.