The Maine Department of Education released its high school graduation rates this week, and while the method of calculating has been adjusted according to federal measurements — consequently lowering rates by a few points pretty much across the board — the conclusions are the same: Maine high schools and communities do an adequate job of keeping students focused on a diploma.

Still, much more work needs to be done to keep all engaged, given the crucial need for Maine to create a stronger and more diversified economy.

Maine’s average graduation rate is 80.4 percent, a measurement that applies to a single “cohort” of students — a given class that enters the ninth grade and graduates four years later. The measurement does not count those students graduating in fewer than four years, nor those who take five or six years to proceed through high school, perhaps earning an alternative diploma or a GED. The state now has narrower parameters for calculating graduation rates, but we’re confident that number processors in Augusta will figure out how to present all the data.

More substantially, it is the law sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, that will drive high schools to keep their students’ eyes on the mortar and tassel. Last winter, the Legislature approved his legislation requiring that Maine high schools graduate at least 90 percent of their students by 2016.

This means schools must work even harder to educate all types of learners, to understand the individual and how she or he might best be academically involved at school. In this climate of cutting education budgets, it is easy to demand expense reductions at the polls; it is crucial, however, that those reductions do not hit the successful programs, including the alternatives, that were cultivated when school spending was more liberal.

In Waldo County, we have four high schools, ranging in size from Islesboro Central School, with a grades 9-12 enrollment of 34 in 2009, to Belfast Area High School, whose enrollment last year was 638. In between those two are Searsport District High School, with enrollment of 226, and Mount View High School in Thorndike, with 495 students. Each of these schools has its strengths, its tight sense of community, its high regard for the accomplishments of teenagers, and the expectation that learning does not stop with a high school diploma.

The graduation rates also vary: at the top of the pack is Islesboro, with a 90.91 percent graduation rate in 2009, while Searsport was the lowest of the four local schools, with a 79.21 percent graduation rate in 2009. Mount View came in just ahead of Searsport, with a rate of 80.49 percent, and Belfast was just ahead of Mount View, with a rate of 81.65 percent.

The number of students who dropped out (and the percentage rate that number represents) at each of the four Waldo County schools for the 2008-2009 school year were as follows: Islesboro, zero students (0.0 percent); Mount View, three students (0.61 percent); Belfast, 15 students (2.35 percent); and Searsport, seven students (3.10 percent).

According to the latest data, the highest graduation rates in Maine include Midland, Madawaska, John Bapst and Cape Elizabeth, representing a variety of regions and communities.

Maine joins a variety of other states around the country with high education expectations — states such as New Jersey, Vermont, North Dakota and Iowa, along with Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Utah — all of which had graduation rates in 2007 that were 77 percent or more (Vermont led the pack at 82.3 percent), according to a June report issued by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The report described a stalling graduation rate across the country, cause for concern, “as those who fail to finish high school will face far greater hardships than their graduating peers, particularly during a period of economic instability.”

For a little perspective: in 1870, when graduation rates were just beginning to be tracked, just 2 percent of those age 17 in the United States completed high school, according to the report. By 1969, graduation rates reached a national peak at 77 percent. There was a rate fall during the 1970s and 1980s, an increase in the 1990s, and now, over the past two years, another decline. South Carolina has the lowest rate, measured at 54 percent in 2007.

That’s why Maine, and Waldo County, must continue to pay attention not only to individual schools, but also to the broader national scene. Yes, tighter school budgets make perfect sense; so do status quo salary rates and other cost-cutting measures specific to a particular school.

But every cut must be weighed with the hard data, including the graduation and drop out rates. It also involves clearer conversations among students, schools and the community, to understand why not graduating is considered a viable alternative. And to figure out how to keep students engaged in learning.