Nearly nine of 10 public high school students in Lancaster County earned a diploma in four years, according to 2011 graduation rates released by the state.
The county's average rate of 88.3 percent slipped slightly from 88.7 percent for 2010 but is well above the state average of 82.6 percent for 2011.
Dropout rates for county schools in 2010-11 averaged 1.4 percent, a slight increase from the previous year.
While most districts saw little change in their rates, Donegal posted a major improvement, while Penn Manor and Octorara saw their percentages drop. Officials at both districts, however, say the smaller numbers are the result of reporting errors.
Penn Manor's graduation rate dropped from 95 percent in 2010 to 90.9 percent in 2011, according to the state.
Superintendent Michael Leichliter said the district has filed an appeal over the 2011 results, and he declined to comment on the numbers.
He did, however, criticize the method used to calculate graduation rates, which count only students who receive a diploma in four years.
While special-education students are permitted by law to remain in school until they're 21, they aren't counted under the "four-year cohort" system unless they graduate within four years, Leichliter pointed out. The rate also doesn't count regular-education students who need more time to earn all their credits.
"Many elements of this number have nothing to do with educational quality and more to do with the educational needs of students," he said in an email.
The cohort rate was adopted in 2009-10 to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law and to make Pennsylvania's data consistent with that of other states.
Previously, graduation rates were determined by dividing the total number of graduates by the number of graduates plus the number of dropouts reported over four years. That yielded significantly higher percentages for most districts in the county and state.
For 2011, Octorara's graduation rate dropped from 87 percent to 71.6 percent, according to the state. But principal Scott Rohrer said the 15.4-point decline is the result of an internal reporting error.
The district's information technology department did not fill out some required fields in the electronic forms used by the state Department of Education to track graduates, he said.
As a result, students who should have been counted as graduates were not counted, although Rohrer could not say how many were missed. He estimated the district's actual 2011 graduation rate would have been close to its 2010 figure of 87 percent.
Octorara attempted to have the 2011 numbers revised by the state, Rohrer said, but was unable to get the issue resolved before the rates had to be finalized.
Donegal had the biggest improvement from 2010 to '11, when its graduation rate rose by 11.4 points, to 93.2 percent.
High school principal John Felix attributed the increase to programs implemented in recent years to improve academics.
Three years ago, Donegal began requiring high school students to complete a career exploration project that includes an in-depth analysis of two careers, including the educational requirements of finding a job in those fields.
The school also intensified its efforts to identify students who were behind in their academic credits or were considering dropping out so counselors and teachers could develop personalized education plans for them, Felix said.
Students also have benefited from a program that brings a recent college graduate to campus to counsel students about continuing their education and assist them with the college application and financial aid processes, he said.
Manheim Central High School officials also cited the program, the National College Advising Corps, as a factor in the 2.2-point rise in the district's graduation rate.
Principal Jeff Hughes said the school also has been more aggressive in identifying students who are considering dropping out and having counselors work to keep them in school.
Elizabethtown had the highest graduation rate in the county for 2011, at 95.2 percent, a 1.2 point increase, followed by Manheim Township (94.2 percent), Cocalico (93.8), Lampeter-Strasburg (93.5) and Donegal (93.2).
The bottom five were School District of Lancaster (68.7), Octorara (71.6), Columbia (72.9), Solanco (87.7) and Conestoga Valley (88.9).
SDL's rate rose by 3 points, and CV and Solanco's numbers also improved modestly, while Columbia posted a 1.1-point drop.
Countywide, a larger percentage of females (90.8 percent) than males (86 percent) earned their diplomas in four years in 2011, and white students had a higher graduation rate (89.1 percent) than their Hispanic (79.4) or black (80.0) peers.
While minorities lagged behind white students here, county schools fared better than many other schools in Pennsylvania in that regard.
Statewide, only 64.6 percent of Hispanics and 65.3 percent of blacks earned their diplomas in four years in 2011.