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Graduating on time, but not college-ready

New state reports show more Colorado high school students are graduating in four years but a third of those enrolling in state colleges and universities must still take remedial classes, mostly in math.

Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Education released the first “on-time” graduation rates showing 72.4 percent of the statewide Class of 2010 earned their diplomas in four years, up from 70.7 percent the year before.

Denver Public Schools led the state’s largest districts in increasing its four-year graduation rate by 5.4 percentage points, from 46.4 percent in 2009 to 51.8 percent in 2010.

But DPS also has seen its remediation rate rise steadily for the past five years, reaching 59 percent for its graduates entering Colorado colleges or universities in fall 2009.

Statewide, nearly a third of all Colorado high school graduates attending a state college or university must enroll in a remedial math, writing or reading class, according to a report released Feb. 4 by the Colorado Department of Higher Education. The remediation rate has changed little since 2005.

The price tag estimated for remedial instruction in 2009-10 is $19.1 million from the state’s general fund, the report states, not counting the $6.7 million in tuition that students pay for the classes.

Calculating “on-time” graduation rates

The new four-year graduation rate is required under the No Child Left Behind Act, largely to allow for comparisons among states. By 2011, 48 states are slated to use the same “on-time” rate.

The method assigns students a graduating class when they enter high school as freshmen and assumes they’ll graduate four years later. Under the old method, students taking longer than four years to graduate were included in overall calculations.

Four-year graduation rates
Statewide, 2010

  • GenderGirls – 76 percent
  • Boys – 69 percent
  • EthnicityAsian – 82 percent
  • Black – 64 percent
  • Hispanic – 56 percent
  • Native American – 50 percent
  • White – 80 percent

Colorado’s 2010 graduation rate is slightly lower under the new method than the old – 72.4 percent vs. 73.3 percent. Most large school districts saw similarly small declines with the new rate. For example, Jefferson County Public Schools’ 2010 graduation rate is 78.1 percent with the new formula and 79.2 percent with the old.

But for some, the different calculation is having a much larger impact.

That includes schools with alternative programs designed for struggling students, who take longer to graduate, and those with concurrent enrollment or “fifth-year” programs, which award diplomas after a student has completed high school and some college.

At Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver, a pioneer in concurrent enrollment, the school’s 2010 graduation rate is 71.6 percent under the old formula – and 51.7 percent under the new four-year calculation.

“In some cases, the new formula would appear to penalize districts that are making a concerted effort to keep students in school,” said the state’s deputy education commissioner, Diane Sirko.

“The new formula is not designed to send a message about the pros and cons of efforts to provide safety nets or genuine alternatives for students. The new formula provides a common definition nationwide for comparability’s sake – and that’s all.”

Four-year grad rates in the largest districts

Among the state’s ten largest school districts, Cherry Creek and Boulder posted the highest four-year graduation rates at 85 percent. Littleton Public Schools had the highest on-time rate in the metro area, at 87 percent.

Only one of the ten biggest districts had a graduation rate lower than 50 percent – Aurora Public Schools, with a 46 percent “on-time” rate. Denver Public Schools was next, at 52 percent, though Superintendent Tom Boasberg highlighted the 5.4-point growth in a morning press conference. The comparable statewide increase was 1.7 points.

“It’s very, very nice to see that progress, the highest of any major school district in the state and well above the state average,” he said.

Boasberg highlighted two “turnaround” schools, Bruce Randolph School and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle College, which had four-year rates topping 85 percent with their first graduating classes in 2010. Each of the 6-12 schools grew their high schools a year at a time.

Still, “We are very clear that our work is cut out for us,” he said.

Denver’s West High School has produced the highest remediation rate in the state for three consecutive years, with 90 percent of its graduates in fall 2009 needing remedial classes. The school’s four-year graduation rate in 2010 is 48 percent, the lowest of any traditional high school in the city.

DPS’ overall remediation rate is now the highest among the state’s ten largest district, edging out Aurora in the Feb. 4 report. Boasberg said more students are enrolled in college, through concurrent enrollment, and college-prep classes to better prepare them for education after high school.

“This speaks clearly to what we have been talking about is at the heart of our reforms – our level of rigor, the number of our kids who are consistently at or above grade level all the way through, is not where it needs to be,” he said.

Alternative, online programs impact graduation rates

Colorado’s worst four-year graduation rates were posted by smaller districts with large online or alternative programs.

That includes Vilas, in southeastern Colorado, which had an “on-time” graduation rate of 18 percent, and Julesburg, in the northeastern tip of the state, with a graduation rate of 20 percent. Both have online programs that dwarf their brick-and-mortar high schools.

Julesburg High, for example, has a four-year graduation rate of 90 percent while the online Insight School of Colorado has a graduation rate of 15 percent.

Similarly, the Englewood School District’s alternative school, Colorado’s Finest Alternative School, is some 70 students larger than its traditional high school. So combining Englewood High School’s 78 percent “on-time” graduation rate with the alternative school’s 13 percent rate nets the entire district a 40 percent four-year graduation rate.

Some districts parsed out their numbers to demonstrate strengths and weaknesses.

Jefferson County school district officials released a report showing the four-year graduation rate for neighborhood schools alone is 7 points higher than that of all schools, which includes charters and alternative programs.

And Denver pulled out its 11 alternative programs for a look at alternative vs. all other schools. The shift showed all other schools had a four-year graduation rate of 66 percent, or 13 points higher than the combined figure. The alternative school four-year graduation rate is just 5.6 percent.

Boasberg said nearly half of Denver’s alternative school students come from other districts. Alternative schools are defined by the state as having 95 percent of students with risk factors such as previously dropping out.

DPS serves a higher proportion of alternative students than other large districts. More than 20 percent of the 5,083 students who made up DPS’ potential Class of 2010 were enrolled in alternative schools. That compares to 15 percent in Aurora and fewer than 10 percent in Adams 12 Five Star, Boulder, Cherry Creek, Douglas and Jefferson counties.

“Our alternative schools are a critical resource, not just for the city of Denver, but for the region,” Boasberg said.

Graduation and remediation rates for state’s largest districts

Jefferson County

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 78.1%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 25.8%

Denver Public Schools

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 51.8%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 59.0%

Douglas County

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 83.1%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 20.5%

Cherry Creek

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 84.7%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 26.8%

Adams 12 Five Star

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 61.7%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 31.0%

Aurora Public Schools

  • On-time graduation rate, Class of 2010 – 45.5%
  • Remediation rate, Class of 2009 – 55.1%

*EdNews’ remediation rates calculation includes only high schools within each district with at least 25 graduates attending a Colorado college or university.
**Sources: Colorado Department of Education, Colorado Department of Higher Education.