Federal change may sink local graduation rates

Two years ago, Ashley Felton-Kreager was deep in trouble and sinking fast — skipping school, using drugs, shoplifting, hanging with the wrong crowd.

She never officially dropped out of high school, but by her junior year she had earned only six credits. Even if she had cared about graduating, which she didn't, she figured she'd likely never catch up enough to earn a diploma.

"I thought, I could stay here and end up doing nothing, or in jail, or dead," Felton-Kreager said, "or I could go back and finish (school). So that's what I did."

Now the 19-year-old senior at Wichita South High School is making straight A's. She hopes to graduate in May, a year behind most of her freshman classmates.

Her diploma will improve her life, Felton-Kreager said. But it won't count toward the district's graduation rate after new federal guidelines take effect this year.

The U.S. Department of Education has mandated that all states use the same formula to calculate graduation rates, a fundamental indicator of school performance. Wichita officials say the change, which will record fifth-year seniors and many others as "nongraduates," could cause the district's graduation rate to plummet and endanger federal funding for its high-poverty schools.

"We don't know how much this is going to drop our graduation rate, but it's probably going to be significant," said Denise Wren, Wichita's assistant superintendent for high schools.

"What we know is right and what we'll actually be counting is not necessarily the same thing."

Kansas currently calculates graduation rate by dividing the number of graduating seniors by the number of graduating seniors plus dropouts from the previous four years. Since 2005, Wichita's graduation rate has ranged from 75 percent to 81 percent.

Under the new formula, graduation rate is measured by dividing the number of graduates by the number of freshmen who started high school four years earlier — minus students who transfer, leave the country or die during that four-year period.

In an Education Week study released in 2009, Wichita's graduation rate was calculated at 54.5 percent with an almost 18 percentage point decline in the 10-year span from 1995 to 2005. That landed Wichita at the bottom of the nation's 50 largest cities in graduation rate growth.

During a presentation to school board members Monday night, Superintendent John Allison said the new formula "is definitely going to impact urban school districts more than others" because of higher student mobility rates.

If a student starts ninth grade and later leaves without being accounted for, that will lower the graduation rate, Allison said. Similarly, if that student transfers to a non-state-accredited private school, such as Wichita Collegiate or a home school, it will lower the rate.

"You have no stumble room available in the new system," Allison said. "If you're a student who, for whatever reason, gets a semester behind ... if you don't make it up, it's going to have an impact for the school district."

Board member Lynn Rogers expressed frustration over the new formula, which he said would diminish the roles of alternative high schools, learning centers, e-schools and other nontraditional paths to graduation. Many students in those programs take more than four years to graduate.

"It's a great idea to have a standard plan," Rogers said. "But there's just too many gaps on here. That's going to make the numbers look bad, and it's just not realistic."

Rogers said he also worries about additional time and resources that will be needed to track individual students and document where they go when they leave.

"The formula is what it is," said Wren, the assistant superintendent. "We can go through the mourning stage and the grief stage, but we're going to have to just pick ourselves up and get on with life."

Felton-Kreager, the South High senior, said she thinks graduates should count regardless of how they finish or how long it takes them.

"There aren't that many people who even come back to high school if they drop out. It's pretty overwhelming," she said. The school board recognized Felton-Kreager last year with a 99 Percent Award, given to one student at each school for outstanding effort and ethic.

She's not overly concerned about the district's graduation rate, she said, because she's focused on getting her diploma, going to college or technical school, and pursuing a degree in nursing or computer science.

"They can put me in statistics wherever," she said. "I'm doing this for me, for my life. I don't ever want to depend on other people to take care of me."