Graduation Matters Montana is now six years old, with the focus today shifting from quick fixes to figuring out what's behind the numbers and creating long-term solutions.
The statewide initiative is rooted in Missoula. It started in January 2010 by then-Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle as an effort to reduce the number of dropouts. In 2008, nearly 200 Missoula high-schoolers dropped out, according to data from the Office of Public Instruction. Two years later, that was cut by more than half to less than 88. Last year, that was down to about 20.
When state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau took office in January 2009, she learned that more than 2,000 Montana high-schoolers had dropped out the year prior.
She looked for promising efforts around the state and latched on to Graduation Matters Missoula, expanding it across Montana. It's now implemented in 58 communities.
"The concept was very appealing because it's not a top-down approach," Juneau said Tuesday. "It really is ground-up and community-based."
The state celebrated a milestone in January: a graduation rate of 86 percent in 2015, up from 81 percent in 2009.
Dropout rates are also down: from 5 percent in 2009 to 3.4 percent in 2015.
And MCPS typically rises above the rest. Last school year, 100 percent graduated from Seeley-Swan, 92 percent from Sentinel, 88 percent from Hellgate and 86 percent from Big Sky.
In the initiative's first year, Missoula school officials said it was phone calls, school counselor advice and better tracking systems that led to MCPS' dropout rate being cut in half.
Officials said from the start that while they want to see the graduation rate increase, there needed to be substance behind the number. Graduating seniors need to be college- and career-ready.
"I personally have made a transition in how I think about it, from the emphasis being on 'graduation matters' to 'making graduation matter,' " said MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane. "We oftentimes talk about incoming high school students developing a four-year plan to get them to graduation. The reality is it needs to be a six- or an eight-year plan.
"We should be creating a pathway for that student that takes them beyond June of their senior year."
Other MCPS initiatives grew from Graduation Matters, including the 21st Century Model of Education and Achievement for All.
The same year that Graduation Matters got underway, MCPS upped its graduation requirement to 24 credits. That changed again in 2013-14: Missoula high-schoolers now have to earn three math credits, up from two.
The state requires 20 credits total to graduate.
MCPS trustee Michael Beers previously told the Missoulian that he worries schools put too much of an emphasis on the graduation rate itself.
"It's not that the graduation rate isn't important," he said Tuesday. "Working with students in high school, and having sat in on IEPs (individualized education programs), I noticed a lot of them not putting a big emphasis on what happens after graduation – it was just getting them to graduation. It would take them three to four years to really get on their feet."
However, since he came onto the board of trustees three years ago, he's started to see a shift.
"I've seen more of an emphasis – and I think there's a variety of factors – on that transition, but I think it'll take us a few years to really see what kind of impact that's having," he said. "I know the teachers are working hard to make sure students who graduate (are college- and career-ready)."
Montana adopted Common Core standards in 2011, increasing rigor in English and math.
"We don't just want these students to graduate, we want to make sure they're graduating ready for the next steps," Juneau said. "For those who are thinking that we're just pushing kids out to raise the number, if you look deeper, you'll see the rigor across content areas also increased."
She sees programs like International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and the academies at Big Sky and Hellgate high schools as efforts that contribute to a higher graduation rate and students being more prepared for life after high school. Beers added STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and math – to the mix.
According to an Achieve report released Tuesday, of Montana's class of 2014 that entered a Montana University System two- and four-year institution, 23 percent were placed in a remedial math class and 10 percent in a remedial English class.
The report focuses on whether more students are graduating or if they're college- and career-ready. Achieve looked at high school graduates' postsecondary enrollment, persistence and remediation.
"For the most part, it shows that too few high school graduates are prepared to succeed in postsecondary education, the military and careers," according to the report.
Every Montana high-schooler takes the ACT college entrance exam for free their junior year, a practice that began in spring 2013. Last year, Montana students had an average composite score of 20.4, compared with the national average of 21. The highest possible score is 36.
In Montana in 2015:
- 57 percent met the English benchmark (64 percent nationally).
- 44 percent met the reading benchmark (46 percent nationally).
- 41 percent met the math benchmark (42 percent nationally).
- 36 percent met the science benchmark (38 percent nationally).
Of the 13 states that require all students to take the ACT, only Colorado, Illinois and North Dakota had higher average scores than Montana.
But a student’s trajectory toward graduation doesn’t start in high school.
"Early on, because we wanted to impact the numbers, I think we had a lot of focus on high school to get an immediate result," Thane said. "But the reality is you need to create a culture beginning at kindergarten.
"The reality is, if you dis-aggregate our attendance data, our worst attendance is in kindergarten. You start forming those habits early on, and I think that there can be a tendency for people to think, 'Oh, it’s kindergarten, it’s not important.' But it really does set a stage for success."
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered to all fourth- and eighth-graders.
Last year, 41 percent of Montana fourth-graders met NAEP’s math benchmark, compared with 39 percent nationally, and 37 percent met the reading benchmark, compared with 35 percent nationally.
In eighth grade, 39 percent met the math benchmark, compared with 32 percent nationally, and 37 percent met the reading benchmark, compared with 32 percent nationally.
Thane said identifying long-term solutions to problems the district starts seeing early on "may not impact our graduation rate for 13 years," but they're important to tackle.
“I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but I think in years past, the distant past, there was largely a push-out model if a student had too many issues or behavior issues or those kinds of things,” he said. “I think it was easy to wash your hands of them and say we’re not going to worry about them, we’re going to focus on the serious students. We can’t afford to do that as a society. We really do need to work to educate all.”