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Just over three-quarters of the Billings School District 2 students who started high school as freshmen in 2007 -- or who joined the school later -- graduated as seniors in 2011.

That graduation rate, 77.8 percent, was cause for alarm to business leaders meeting with SD2 officials last week and has become a point of focus for district administrators.

"We've got issues and I think we've got to address it," said Kathy Olson, executive director of school leadership support.

Renewed attention to the district's low graduation rate -- the state average is 82.2 percent -- was brought about by the new way in which the state Office of Public Instruction calculates graduation rates.

Beginning with the 2007 freshman class, the U.S. Department of Education began to require states to use the same formula in calculating graduation rates in an effort to create a more uniform system that would allow for the comparison of rates between states, said OPI spokeswoman Allyson Hagen.

The new method is fairly straightforward. The high school starts with the number of freshmen beginning school in the fall. The group is known as a cohort and the district tracks them through each year of high school.

Over the course of the four years, students who move into the school and join that cohort are added to the tally. Students who leave the high school, if they transfer to a school that offers a regular high school diploma, are subtracted from the cohort tally.

At graduation, the number of students in the cohort receiving a diploma is divided by the original number of freshmen that started in the cohort, adjusted by the number of students who transferred in, those who transferred out and those who didn't received a diploma.

Not counted are students who take five or more years to graduate or students who transition into a district's adult education program to earn a GED. Those students are tracked in an "extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate."

The district's dropout rate last year was 4.6 percent. Dropout rates differ from graduation rates in that a dropout rate calculates only the number of students who check out of school in one given year. The graduation rate follows a class through all four years of high school.

The goal with the state's Graduation Matters program is to cut the district's dropout rate in half, moving it from the 4 percent range to the 2 percent range. That, in turn, affects the graduation rate. The more students who stay in school each year slowly increases the number who will eventually graduate.

This new adjustment to how graduation rates are calculated dropped SD2's graduation rate by a few percentage points from years past.

Brenda Koch, the district's other executive director of school leadership support, acknowledged the ding caused by the readjustment but said ultimately the change is a good thing. It removes the "yes, but" arguments, she said.

"All the excuses have now been removed," she said.

The simple formula for calculating graduation rates and its focus on a student's four-year path through high school leaves schools with hard data to focus on instead of what may have been a school's extenuating circumstances, she said.

SD2 adopted the Graduation Matters program last year in an effort to cut down on its dropout rate. Graduation Matters puts an emphasis on school/community partnerships and is one of the reasons district officials were meeting with business leaders last week.

Also new is the district's move to increase high school teacher collaboration by delaying the start of classes on Wednesdays. For an hour on Wednesday mornings, teachers meet in small groups discussing effective instruction methods and struggling students.

"They're focusing on individual kids," Koch said.

"They're looking at solutions," Olson added.

The hope is that these discussions among teachers will lead to improved classroom performance for students and a better graduation rate for the high schools.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.