SALT LAKE CITY — High school graduation rates across the country appear to be on the upswing, according to a report released Tuesday. That is except for Utah and its neighbors, Arizona and Nevada.
According to the report released by America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, the nation as a whole went from a graduation rate of 72.6 percent in 2002 to 74.9 percent in 2008.
Over that time period, Utah graduation rates dropped from 80.5 percent to 74.3 percent, a 6.2 percent drop. Arizona reportedly dropped 4 percent, and Nevada, 20.6 percent.
But Utah education officials say they have more accurate data for the state, showing that Utah's high school dropout rate has stayed steady at 12 percent over the three study years.
"We think our data is more reliable then theirs," said State Superintendent Larry K. Shumway.
Jennifer Lambert, data quality manager for the state Office of Education, said this is because the study group got its numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, which uses a less precise method of calculating drop-out rates called a synthetic cohort rate. Mark Peterson, spokesman for the state Office of Education, described the method as more of a "best guess" model.
Five years ago, Utah began tracking students individually to come out with more exact numbers on drop-out rates, called a true cohort. Utah was one of the first states in the nation to implement this more exact method, said John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability with the state Office of Education.
Lambert said this is a better way to calculate because instead of just looking at the number of students in the incoming freshman class and comparing it with the number of students in the outgoing senior class, it tracks the students that move to different schools or go into the military or change their name.
By 2011, all states are supposed to have this same type of tracking model that will allow a more exact way to see how states stack up against each other, Jesse said.
He said that model will be more precise than Utah's current model as it will not count GED students and will use a four-year high school model instead of the three-year model currently used in Utah.
Jesse said this will probably make it look like graduation rates decreased slightly but it will be just a different, more accurate model.
But even at the current rate of 88 percent projected by the state model, Jesse said Utah still has a ways to go.
One of the lowest graduation rates in the state is East Shore High School, an alternative school that according to state data had a graduation rate of just 7 percent last year. Canyon High in Davis County, also an alternative school, had a 43 percent graduation rate while Green River High in Emery County had a 100 percent graduation rate.
There are also large graduation gaps between different ethnic groups in Utah. In 2009, Caucasians had a graduation rate of 91 percent while African Americans had a graduation rate of 77 percent, American Indians, 74 percent, and Hispanics, 71 percent.
The report set a goal to reach 90 percent national graduation rates by 2020.
"By 2020, three-quarters of all jobs in America will be high-pay and high-skill with 123 million Americans needed to fill those jobs. However, at current high school and college graduation rates, only 50 million Americans are expected to qualify for them," the report states.
But drop-outs do more than just harm themselves by not getting a diploma; they end up costing the state and the nation as well. A recent Princeton University study found that each high school dropout costs the nation about $260,000 over his or her lifetime. It also found that if 1,000 of those students remained in school each year, state and local governments would see $1.8 million more in annual revenue.
In Salt Lake City on Tuesday, more than 200 business and community leaders met for the Education Excellence Summit 2010. Many in attendance pledged to combat these rates by giving to schools, advocating for better education or volunteering to help improve these schools.
"Early intervention," Jesse said, "is the key."