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Falling short

This year, Virginia high schools will be held accountable for the first time for graduating at least 80 percent of their students within four years.

Judged by last year’s numbers, neither Lakeland High School nor King’s Fork High School makes the grade.

Only 69 percent of the students who began high school at either school in 2005 graduated in 2009 with either a standard or an advanced studies diploma. Nansemond River’s rate was 83 percent.

The data for the class of 2010 will be released later this summer, and schools that do not meet the 80 percent graduation rate will not be marked as having made adequate yearly progress. Those schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act face sanctions, including being required to allow parents to switch their children to better-performing schools.

The state board of education voted to approve the new graduation benchmark on Thursday. It now must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s something we’ll continue to push for,” said Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw. “As the AYP standards continue to get higher and higher … it’s going to get tougher and tougher, but it’s got to be a standard we keep shooting for.”

Until recent years, graduation rates for schools in Virginia were estimated. However, in 2004, Virginia public schools began tracking each individual student to see how many graduated within four years — the number known as the on-time graduation rate.

“Because of our having the ability to have longitudinal data on each student, we were able to, two years ago, come out with an on-time graduation rate that was not an estimate, but was accurate,” said Julie Grimes, communications manager for the Virginia Department of Education.

With two years of data — the classes of 2008 and 2009 — the department set the graduation benchmark of 80 percent, Grimes said.

“They needed a couple of years of data to determine what would be a realistic graduation rate,” she said.

The graduation rates as measured for the national benchmarks are lower than those measured for the state benchmarks, because the federal numbers include only standard and advanced studies diplomas. The Virginia board of education recognizes five types of diplomas, however, for its statistical purposes.

The state board of education also has requested a “safe harbor” allowance in the new graduation requirements, Grimes said. The safe harbor rule would allow schools to average three years of graduation rates to get a passing rate.

“You can do an average of three years to account for potential fluctuations in one cohort of students,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to approve the new benchmark soon. Grimes hopes that will be in time for the release of AYP results in mid-August.