Maine ranks 10th nationwide in high school graduation rates, according to the first nationwide data released by the U.S. Department of Education that uses the same measuring stick for all states.

Maine’s graduation rate was 84 percent, according to figures released earlier this week. Iowa had the highest rate at 88 percent.

Previously, states used different methods to calculate their graduates, with some states including students earning General Educational Development diplomas or who took five or six years to graduate, for example.

Experts say the new formula matters because it allows for direct comparisons and analysis between schools.

In addition to overall graduation rates, the DOE information breaks down graduation rates by categories such as ethnic populations, students with disabilities, economic disadvantages and limited English skills.

Maine has been using the new formula for calculating graduation rates for three years, which essentially measures graduation based on the students who entered the school as 9th graders and who graduate in four years.

It does not count students who take longer to graduate or those who earn a GED. It also takes into account students who drop out or transfer in, so those students don’t skew the final graduation rate.

“This gives us a level playing field,” said David Silvernail, the director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine. Silvernail recently served as lead research analyst for the Maine State Board of Education and the state legislature to develop a school funding formula for Maine.

Silvernail said having an apples to apples comparison between states will be a useful tool for researchers and policymakers because it removes the perception that another state’s experience isn’t relevant because it uses a different methodology.

The sub-categories are important, too, he said. If a state is focusing on improving graduation rates for a particular group of students, such as economically disadvantaged or English language learners, they can easily find comparative data.

The graduation rates for Maine subcategories include:

* 78 percent — limited English speakers

* 73 percent — economically disadvantaged

* 66 percent — students with disabilities

What makes for a high graduation rate?

At Yarmouth High School, which has a 97 percent graduation rate, one of the highest in the state, it’s personal attention to struggling students, officials said.

“We have a saying here: It’s really hard to fall through the cracks at Yarmouth. The kids would have to really look for the cracks,” Principal Ted Hall said Wednesday.

For example, at the end of the first quarter of the school year, Hall meets with teachers and guidance counselors to discuss all the students’ grades — in particular the seniors. A senior who starts to slide academically may not be able to catch up in time to graduate, he said.

“If we see any potential problems, we meet with the student, we get with the parents. Whatever it takes, that’s our attitude,” he said.

The method seems to be working. Last year, Yarmouth’s 97 percent was the second-highest graduation rate for public high schools in Cumberland County, behind Cape Elizabeth High School’s 97.3 percent. In 2009-10, Yarmouth edged out Cape Elizabeth for top graduation status, 97.5 percent to Cape’s 94.7 percent.

A lot of the research, Hall said, indicates that dropouts felt as though no one cared or even noticed they were in danger.

“Now that may not be completely true, but you have to ask, what’s the kernel of truth in that?” Hall said.

Several educators and experts noted that a graduation rate statistic is just one data point that does not necessarily reflect the overall student learning experience or quality of a particular school. It doesn’t capture, for example, how many of those graduates go on to college, or the breadth of a school’s academic or extracurricular offerings.

“A hidden piece of the Maine schools is that a lot of really small schools are keeping kids engaged,” said Hall, without necessarily having a high graduation rate.

There are a lot of education initiatives under way in Maine, Hall said, noting efforts to quantify teacher evaluations and adopt Common Core standards of learning.

“What I hope isn’t forgotten is that it’s relationships with the kids in the classroom and the school that are probably the most important factor to getting kids off the starting line,” he said.

The DOE has not calculated a national average graduation rate, since three states have been granted extensions to compile complete results.

“It’s very good, and the fact that we’re all using the same system is very good,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of effort in the state and nationally to be able to use data better. This is an important part of that,” Connerty-Marin said. “We’re able to remove the uncertainty of (earlier) data.”

It could also depoliticize the debate over the best way to improve public education.

The graduation data comes on the heels of comments Gov. Paul LePage made this month that Maine’s public schools aren’t doing a good job of educating students. Even at the state’s best high schools, only about 60 percent of the students are rated proficient in English and math, the governor said at a breakfast Nov. 15 in York.

“If you want a good education, go to an academy,” LePage said. “If you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school.”

On Wednesday, Connerty-Marin said the state wanted to use this kind of data to make decisions. The graduation rate is one of the measurements used under the federal No Child Left Behind law to determine if a school is making adequate yearly progress.

“Seeing how the districts compare — not for the purposes of saying this district is good and this one is bad — but to say, ‘let’s find five district like our district and see what they’re doing with high school dropouts because we have an issue with that,'” he said

Still, the 84 percent graduation rate means 1 in 6 Maine seniors are not graduating, he said.

“We need to demand more rigor, it points to the need for student-based learning, and the need for multiple pathways, since students don’t all learn the same way and part of that would be school choice,” he said, referring to several of the LePage administration’s educational priorities.