The nation's capital had the worst four-year high school graduation rate in the country in 2010-2011, a finding that suggests the city has more work to do to reform its historically troubled school system.
Touting the use of a "common, rigorous measure" across the states for the first time, the U.S. Department of Education said in a report released this week that the District had a graduation rate of 59 percent, placing it behind Nevada's rate of 62 percent. Iowa fared the best, with an 88 percent graduation rate. Maryland reported an 83 percent graduation rate, while Virginia had an 82 percent rate.
States in the top half of the report posted rates between 80 percent and 88 percent, while 25 other states reported between the District's rate of 59 percent and the 78 percent rate shared by Arizona, Delaware and North Carolina.
The annual graduation measurement is significant this year because for the first time federal officials based the figures off the number of students who graduate in four years rather than allowing the states to define their own rates. Twenty-six states reported lower graduation rates, while 24 states either increased their rates or remained the same.
"By using this new measure, states will be more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.
Under the new measure, the District's graduation rate decreased from 76 percent in 2009-2010.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, noted the difficulty of comparing the District's strictly urban school district to geographically diverse systems in states across the country.
"We consider ourselves a state and we're treated as a state in many regards. At the same time to make a comparison between us and let's say, Wyoming -- which is completely rural -- one has to be mindful that that comparison will not hold all the time."
Traditional public schools and charter schools in the District have shown steady, yet slow, gains in annual standardized exams. Yet fewer than half of the city's public school students were proficient in math and reading, according to the 2012 results of its D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.
The education department's figures arrive as the D.C. Public Schools officials and city lawmakers mull a controversial proposal to close nearly 20 schools across the District, including one high school. By consolidating students into fewer buildings, the system can devote its resources to educational programs, according to D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Ms. Henderson is shepherding the system through its reforms in the wake of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, a nationally renowned and polarizing figure who charged forward with sweeping reforms -- including school closures and firings of principals and teachers -- during her tenure under then- Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
"The bottom line, though, is that the graduation rates are poor," Mr. Mendelson said. "The goal should be that every kid who enters the ninth grade will graduate from high school."
Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy for the Brookings Institution, said while it was good that states are being required to report a uniform graduation rate, "it seems to me to have some obvious flaws."
His skepticism, Mr. Whitehurst said, lies in the comparison between numbers the Department of Education presented and figures used by the National Center for Education Statistics, which on its website calls itself the "primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education."
"It's supposed to be measuring the same thing, but there's a big difference in the two sets of numbers," Mr. Whitehurst said. "That raises issues of which numbers should we be believing."
John Merrifield, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis in Texas, compared the formula to an "attempt to make a uniform product serve diverse needs."
"It's pretty hard to put any sensible meaning to these rates depending on what definition you use," he said.
New Mexico and Nevada posted rates slightly better than that reported by the District, at 63 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Nevada Superintendent Jim Guthrie acknowledged the low rating to the Las Vegas Sun but said the survey provides information the state needed to know how to improve.
"You can't solve your problems if you don't know what they are," he said.
Larry Behrens, spokesman for the New Mexico's department of public education, similarly said the rate was "more proof things need to change."
"If the status quo continues to stand in the way of reform, we can expect more results like this," Mr. Behrens said. "A good education, where students are ready for college or career, is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our day. We are not delivering on this basic right for our students in New Mexico."
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Board of Education, said the survey data released on Monday was "the result of developments on a number of fronts."
Despite the change in methodology, Virginia's graduate rate stayed constant not only between the 2010-2011 school year but from as early as 2003, which was the oldest data provided in the survey. In the past nine school years, the state has stayed between a 79.9 rate and an 82 percent rate.
"School divisions have been working hard in Virginia for the last 10 years on raising graduation rates. Some of that is driven by the developments on the policy front, and some of it also has to do with it's the right thing to do," Mr. Pyle said.
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