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One set of numbers, two sets of tales

“The actual graduation rates have shown dramatic improvements”


Education Minister Ed Picco shuffles the pile of printed spreadsheets laid out across his desk, then smooths out the widest one, running his finger across it as he tells the story he sees in its densely-packed rows of numbers.

"There's two ways of looking at those numbers," Picco says, referring to a recent report on school enrolment and national high school graduation rates.

Each of those "two ways" uses the same numbers to tell a wildly divergent story about high school graduation rates in Nunavut.

If you tell the story using Statistics Canada's method, no more than three in 10 Nunavut students graduate from high school ever year.

But if you tell the story using the Government of Nunavut's method, that number rises to nearly five in 10.

In Nunavut, like anywhere else, politicians love to use poorly understood numbers as weapons to establish dominance over each other – so the difference matters.

Statistics Canada uses simple arithmetic to figure out the high school graduation rate in each province and territory.

First, they count the total number of 17- and 18-year-olds. They divide that number by two. Then they count the number of high school graduates, compare it with the average number of 17- and 18-year-olds, and turn the answer into a per cent.

That per cent then gets transformed into an oft-quoted "graduation rate."

In Nunavut's case, Statistics Canada's method gives a graduation rate of 27.5 per cent for the 1999-2000 school year. Seven years later, the same method gives a graduation rate of only 28.4 per cent for 2005-06.

But Picco says Statistics Canada's method does not reflect the realities of life in Nunavut.

Nunavut, for example, tends to have a higher number of graduates older than 18. In 2005-06, 94 of 185 graduates – more than half – were older than 19.

"It skews the number. It brings our numbers down," Picco says.

Picco says another issue is that many Nunavummiut take more than four years to graduate from high school, often because they'll quit school temporarily to have babies, or for other reasons.

"You don't graduate by year anymore, you graduate by credits. You need 100 credits and you start recording your credits in Grade 10," Picco says.

So the GN uses a different method. They count the total number of people enrolled in Grade 12 at the beginning of each year. Then they count the number of people who graduate. By comparing those two numbers, they create a per cent figure that becomes their graduation rate.

"In 2007, we had 191 graduates last year and 399 enrolled students in Grade 12. That means our graduation rate was 47 per cent," Picco says.

The GN's method produces a higher graduation figure than Statistics Canada for every year since 1999-2000, which Picco points to on the spreadsheet.

"That graduation rate is 33 per cent. That's higher than the 25 per cent that you always hear talked about," Picco says.

He picks up a different spreadsheet and runs his fingers across it.

It shows a bar gaph with 21 vertical bars running left to right, each bar representing a year between 1987 and 2007.

Picco's proud of this one. The first tiny bar, marked "1987," stands no higher than the first joint of a baby's little finger

"In 1987 we had only three communities with Grade 12. In 1987 we had only 20 graduates from Grade 12, all over Nunavut. That's all we had. Twenty years later we have 10 times that number."

Towering over it on the far right-hand side of the page, stands a tall, imposing bar marked "2007."

This one shows that 191 Nunavut residents graduated from high school in 2007.

"We certainly have a long ways to go, but the actual graduation rates have shown dramatic improvements," Picco says, his finger stabbing at the 2007 bar.

Almost all of those new graduates, by the way, are Inuit. The number of non-Inuit graduates is about the same every year. But the number of Inuit graduates is moving up dramatically.

For example, in 1999, 104 Inuit and 24 non-Inuit graduated from high school in Nunavut. In 2007, 174 Inuit and only 17 non-Inuit graduated.

Even if the GN's calculation methods were accepted by Statistics Canada, however, Nunavut would still suffer the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.

The Statscan report, issued July 28, shows that even the Northwest Territories owned a higher graduation rate than Nunavut's for 2005-06: 66.2 per cent.

Yukon posted a 66.8 per cent graduation rate and in every other province, except Alberta, graduation rates ran above 70 and sometimes 80 per cent. The national rate stood at 72.1 per cent.

But Picco believes that high school graduation is ultimately a self-generating thing – because the children of those who do graduate from high school almost always graduate themselves.

"Every trend indicator shows that if your parents graduate from high school, you will graduate from high school."

Another factor is school attendance.

"Our figures show that if kids show up at least 80 per cent of the time during kindergarten to Grade 12, they're graduating and then they are being successful in the South."

As in the rest of Canada, the number of school-age children is slowly dropping – because women are having fewer babies.

Last year, 9,056 students were enrolled in Nunavut schools, compared with 9,354 in 2005.

This means that when Nunavut schools start opening for classes in a couple of weeks, total enrolment is likely to be a little bit lower.

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