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Published in Print: July 27, 2005, as Efforts Seek Better Data On Graduates

Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates

State, Federal Plans Target High School Improvement

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What is a state’s graduation rate?

North Carolina says it graduates 97 percent of its high school students, while Washington state reports it gives diplomas to just 66 percent. But researchers, using methods they believe are more accurate, estimate that the two states’ graduation rates are essentially the same, at around 64 percent.

Acknowledging that such disparities in data are common, state and federal officials are taking steps to make sure that states publish figures that compare graduation rates using the same scorecard.

In the past two weeks, 46 governors signed a pact to produce graduation-rate data that more accurately gauge how well their states do at ensuring students finish on time. Separately, federal officials announced that the U.S. Department of Education would publish its own state-by-state graduation data along with the methodologically disparate rates states now report under the No Child Left Behind Act.

States hope to do a better job tracking students who finish high school. They also want to get more accurate counts of those who drop out, such as this boy, who waits for friends outside his former campus, Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, earlier this year.
States hope to do a better job tracking students who finish high school. They also want to get more accurate counts of those who drop out, such as this boy, who waits for friends outside his former campus, Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, earlier this year.
—File photo by Damian Dovarganes/AP

The developments together constitute a big step toward producing data that tell policymakers whether their states are providing a sound high school education and that will help track efforts to improve high schools, backers of the changes say.

“We need to have comparable numbers so we really know the extent of the problems,” said Ross Wiener, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that published a June report critical of states’ divergent graduation-rate calculations. ("Studies Decry Faulty Graduation Data, Rising Dropout Rates," July 13, 2005.)

“In too many places, states aren’t even acknowledging the problem,” he said.

While acknowledging the plans announced this month go a long way to address the issue, Mr. Wiener and others say state officials still have a lot more work.

Some states still don’t have the ability to track individuals as they matriculate through schools, so they aren’t able to determine whether they’ve dropped out, transferred to another school, or moved out of state, said Dane Linn, the director of education policies studies for the National Governors Association, which coordinated the governors’ pact. Those states will be publishing estimates of graduation rates while they work toward more accurate counts of high school completion.

The results of the agreement are going to vary from state to state, Mr. Linn said. But the NGA expects the agreement will produce state graduation rates that are the most accurate measures possible.

The planned changes in reporting graduation rates are part of new efforts to improve the quality of high schools, which the NGA has pushed over the past year. ("High Schools in Limelight for Summit," Feb. 23, 2005.)

“Unfortunately, the quality of state high school graduation and dropout data is such that most states cannot fully account for their students as they progress through high school,” said the one-page statement agreed to by 46 governors.

In the Compact on State High School Graduation Rates, state officials have pledged to “implement a standard” graduation rate that measures the percentage of a 9th grade class that earns a diploma within four years.

Four Don’t Join

At the NGA’s annual meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, the group announced July 17 that the governors of 45 states and Puerto Rico had signed the agreement. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California joined the coalition last week, said John Blacksten, an NGA spokesman.

The governors of Texas, Florida, Maryland, and Wyoming did not agree to the compact.

Education officials in at least two of those states said they are substantially implementing many of the compact’s recommendations, or plan to in the future.

Texas collects the data the NGA suggests and publishes its graduation rate based on the percentage of freshmen who earn diplomas four years later, said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Although Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not sign on, the state’s department of education is reviewing how it calculates graduation rates and will be consulting with the NGA before making changes, a spokesman there said.

Just four days before the NGA announcement, the Department of Education’s No. 2 official said that the department would publish graduation rates based on data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. Under the department’s formula, the NCES will divide the number of students who graduate by the average numbers of 8th graders, 9th graders, and 10th graders who were part of that class.

“By comparing this figure with the reported rate, we’ll have a truer picture of the national trend and can identify which states most need to improve their individual reporting,” Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon said July 13 in a speech at the Education Commission of the States’ annual conference in Denver.

Uneven Data

The first publication of the Education Department’s new graduation-rate figures will probably be early next year, said Chad Colby, a department spokesman.

States now use various methods to calculate graduation rates.

North Carolina reports the percentage of its graduates who earned their diplomas in four years or less. The state uses the measure when it reports data under the No Child Left Behind Act. In the 2002-03 school year, that rate was 97 percent.

Other states publish graduation rates as the percentage of seniors at the start of the year who earned diplomas by graduation day—a measure that filters out students who dropped out during earlier grades.

Still others, such as Washington state, report a graduation rate that measures what percentage of students earned diplomas from the number of students who entered 9th grade four years earlier. For the 2002-03 school year, the state reported a rate of 66 percent.

Mr. Wiener said the so-called cohort rate used by Washington state is a better gauge of how well high schools are performing than many formulas used by other states. Of the 46 states that reported graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year, 31 published numbers that were at least 10 percentage points higher than the cohort analysis cited in the recent Education Trust report.

Vol. 43, Issue 24, Pages 1,31

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