TWIN FALLS — Two-thirds of south-central Idaho’s high schools surpassed the statewide graduation rate for the class of 2018.
Of those that didn’t, many were either alternative schools — where some students take longer than four years to graduate — or small schools where the graduation rate can fluctuate widely based on just a few students.
The Idaho State Department of Education released the latest graduation rates Jan. 17. Statewide, the graduation rate topped 80 percent for the first time. In total, 80.65 percent of Idaho high schoolers graduated within four years in 2018 — up from 79.67 percent in 2017.
“Our graduation rates have been improving steadily, and the pace is accelerating,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said in a statement. “I am confident the pace will continue to pick up, thanks to hard work by our schools and districts and the intensive help my department now offers to lower-performing schools under our new accountability plan, which kicked in for the 2018-19 school year.”
The state is required to release high school graduation rates every year. For several years, it has used a cohort model — a federal calculation showing how many students graduate with a regular high school diploma within four years.
It counts some students as “non-graduates,” including some alternative school students, GED graduates, special education students who earn a modified diploma, and students who withdraw from school or transfer out of state without documentation. That has caused concern and criticism from local school leaders. For the first time this year, the Idaho State Department of Education is also measuring a five-year graduation rate, which includes students who graduate within five years. About 25 percent of Idaho students who didn’t graduate in four years returned for a fifth year during the 2017-18 school year, the education department said in a statement.
In Twin Falls, both of the traditional high schools had a 2018 graduation rate that far exceeded the statewide average.
Twin Falls High School’s graduation rate came in at 91.6 percent, while Canyon Ridge High School — which is home to the Twin Falls School District’s high school refugee and English language learners — was at 85.1 percent.
“As a district, we’re doing really well,” said L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District.
Magic Valley High School, an alternative school that takes in students from across the region through age 21, had a 30 percent four-year graduation rate.
“We know that Magic Valley (High School) is going to have a lower graduation rate because of the way it’s calculated and the purpose of the school to take on anyone who wants to graduate, regardless of where they start,” Erickson said.
At Magic Valley High, about 80 students graduated last school year — twice as many as the 39 counted under the four-year cohort rate. But if students took more than four years to graduate, they weren’t counted.
In Cassia County, all four traditional high schools have a graduation rate above 90 percent.
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“Historically, our graduation rates have been above the state averages,” said Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District.
Cassia County’s alternative school, Cassia Junior/Senior High School, had a graduation rate — 41.5 percent — similar to other Magic Valley alternative schools. Jerome High School’s graduation rate is 77.5 percent, but that statistic can be deceiving. That’s because the school district has a small alternative school that’s essentially part of Jerome High — not a standalone campus.
The graduation rate among low-income students was around 70-71 percent last year, compared with 91 percent for other students.
“There’s a gap there,” Superintendent Dale Layne said. “We need to concentrate on that group of kids.”
Also, the graduation rate among special education students was lower than school officials hoped for, Layne said, adding that’s another group to focus on.
At Kimberly High School, the graduation rate was 93.3 percent. “Overall, we’re happy,” Superintendent Luke Schroeder said. “We’re satisfied with that.”
Ideally, the graduation rate would be 100 percent, Schroeder said, because there are so many more open doors for students who graduate from high school. Research shows the sooner educators can intervene with students encountering issues like poor attendance, academic struggles and behavior challenges, the better. “We want to start being more aggressive in our interventions,” Schroeder said.
Kimberly doesn’t have a large population of socioeconomically disadvantaged students or those learning English as a second language, Schroeder said. But both subgroups are above the statewide average for graduation and 100 percent of English language learners graduated last year.
Magic Valley school district officials say they’re glad to see the Idaho State Department of Education is now releasing a five year-graduation rate.
“We’re very fortunate they’re starting to look at that,” Erickson said. It’s important to recognize students who graduate in five years and count them as graduates, he said.
The Twin Falls School District has calculated its own five-year graduation rate for years. It also surveys high school seniors about their future plans and high school graduates for 18 months after they earn a diploma to learn where they go.
For alternative schools, measuring graduation rates using a four-year cohort is problematic, Critchfield said.
Ultimately, many of those students earn a high school diploma, she said. “If it takes a fifth year, who cares? It matters to the student that they completed it.”