Belen's grad rate drops five points

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To throw out the statistic of Belen Consolidated Schools' 57 percent recent graduation rate for 2013 is to miss a big part of the picture, says Superintendent Ron Marquez.

Marquez said the graduation reporting and tracking method implemented by the New Mexico Public Education Department, only looks at what are called cohorts of students.

A cohort of students is the number of freshmen that begin high school in any given year. The graduation rate for individual schools and the district as a whole is calculated based on how many of those students in the cohort graduate four years later.

"What the system doesn't take into account is if a student is still in school," Marquez said.

For instance, after a student's freshman year, he or she might not have earned enough credits to be considered a sophomore, so is reclassified as a freshman.

"That hurts your graduation rate," the superintendent said.

While that student may graduate with the rest of their class in four years by making up the missing credits, they aren't considered part of the tracked cohort.

And when students transfer from one district to another, while they are tracked by PED, they may still fall out of the cohort. A transfer student is considered part of the cohort for the school he or she is moving to, Marquez said, but because of differing graduation requirements between districts that student may not stay on track.

The state requires 24 credits to graduate from any high school in New Mexico, but some districts have additional credit requirements — Belen requires 28 to graduate.

A student moving from a school that requires more than 24 credits might be able to graduate early, while a student moving to a district that requires more than their old one might be behind.

The quandary is that either scenario — early or late graduation — counts against the graduation rates for both schools, Marquez said.

"The good news is, since about 2009, we have been able to do a better job of tracking student movements with our student management system, Power School," he said.

Student records are sent to a student's new school and PED knows the student that started as part of the Belen cohort is now part of another school's group.

Marquez said using the student management system, about of a third of the district's students that move to different schools can be tracked all the way through graduation to see if they make it out of high school in four years.

The remaining students are reclassified.

"Once you do that, you've lost on your (graduation) percentage rate," he said.

Marquez said it is important to track students to make sure they are graduating on time, but he doesn't want the fact that they did graduate at some point to get lost in the effort to track those who do it in the allotted four years.

"It goes back to what I've said before. 'Who decided on four years? Who decided on 180 days in a school year?' I think we should have 200 days, myself," Marquez said.

The district's graduation rate fell from 2012 with 62.5 percent to this years 57 percent. Both high schools also saw a decrease in rates: Belen High School dropped from 65.2 percent to 60.1 and Infinity High School from 27.2 to 16 percent.

To get a true picture of the district's graduation rate, Marquez said you almost have to combine both schools.

"You have to think that everyone who graduates from Infinity would have graduated from Belen," he said.

The superintendent said he is also unsure how PED defines a cohort at Infinity, since district policy prohibits freshmen from enrolling.

"We only allow second-semester freshmen," he said. "So I'm not sure what they consider a cohort at Infinity."

And because Infinity has a different kind of student population, often serving students who are young parents, students going to school part time or who may be returning to school after an extended absence, Marquez said the graduation rate there is hard to interpret.

"There are some statistics that are more important to me than those numbers," he said. "Last year, we had 16 students graduate from Infinity. All 16 of those students have gone on to post-secondary education. That's important, too."

Marquez is also concerned about frequent changes to graduation requirements by the state.

"What scares me personally is PED is still changing this year's graduation requirements," he said.

For several years, students could substitute marching band for physical education credit. At the beginning of this academic year, the department mandated that PE credit could only be earned in a PE class.

"So we moved students out of band and into PE. Then they tell us, band does count, so we shuffle them back," Marquez said, frustration obvious in his voice.

The superintendent continued, saying that changes were to be expected, but shouldn't be done "in the middle of the road. They should be made and applied to the incoming freshman class."

To better the district's graduation rate, Marquez said it needs to continue improving its student tracking.

"We are doing a good job, but we need to do better in every district," he said. "We need to continue to make school exciting for our students through our academics, activities, athletics, vocational programs. Belen High School's Career Academy is second to none.

"We do need to continue to improve our graduation rates but we have other successes that we will continue being extremely proud of," Marquez said.

In a recent Albuquerque Journal article, the governor bragged on the fact that New Mexico ranked No. 1 nationwide in the number of students taking advanced placement courses.

To continue that trend, Marquez said the district recently made the financial commitment to pay $25 of the $64 fee to take the AP placement test. The district has about 211 students in AP classes, ranging from sophomores to seniors.

Belen also leads the county in the number of students doing dual enrollment classes with the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, he said.

"In the 2012 graduating class, we had three students who were among 30 in the state who received scholarships directly into UNM medical school," Marquez said. "We have a lot to be proud of.

"I'm not saying PED's way of doing things is wrong, but how can you compare graduation rates when each district's requirements are different? It's not an apples to apples comparison," he said. "If you are comparing our rates to our own kids, we need to do better. But I'm afraid when people start comparing our district with other districts, it's not understood that the requirements may be different."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.