Diplomas Count 2012: Trailing Behind, Moving Forward
Published Online: June 1, 2012
Published in Print: June 7, 2012, as As New Federal Rules Kick In on Graduation Rates, States Change Their Calculations

44 States Now Using the Same Grad.-Rate Formula

The No Child Left Behind Act broke new ground in 2002 by mandating that accountability decisions under the law take into account high school graduation rates along with test-score performance when determining whether a school or district made “adequate yearly progress.” Initial federal guidelines allowed—and states made use of—substantial latitude when implementing key NCLB provisions related to graduation. In the subsequent years, states went on to employ a variety of noncomparable methods for calculating graduation rates and to set very different targets for the percent of students expected to finish high school with a diploma. Prompted by ongoing concerns about the accuracy and uniformity of these state-reported graduation rates, the U.S. Department of Education in 2008 issued new regulations that required all states to transition toward a uniform, cohort-based method for calculating graduation rates and to use that rate for federal accountability purposes.

These new rules were to be phased in gradually, with states starting by publicly reporting rates using the new cohort method and, eventually, fully integrating the new rate into school- and district-level accountability determinations. As of this school year, all states are required to calculate and report high school graduation rates using the same formula. Formal accountability stakes will be added next year.

To mark this milestone, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center conducted an original 50-state survey to gauge state progress toward implementing the 2008 regulations. The center found that most states are on target to enact the graduation-rate requirements, although challenges do remain. The full report and detailed state-by-state tables are available online at www.edweek.org/rc.

Keeping Pace

In the simplest terms, the “four-year adjusted cohort rate” method mandated by the 2008 regulations requires states to use data on individual students tracked over time to determine what percent of students who enter the 9th grade in a given year (the “cohort”) have earned a regular diploma four years later. Under the new rules, as before, states retain considerable authority to define what constitutes a “regular” diploma.

That basic calculation may be “adjusted” to account for students who transfer into or out of a cohort after the start of the 9th grade. For example, a student who transfers into a new district within the same state during the 10th grade would be added to the appropriate graduating class in the receiving system (and removed from the cohort in the sending district). The regulations also outline limited situations—such as transfer to a private school, an out-of-state move, or death—where students may be removed from the statewide cohort, provided that proper documentation is produced.

According to the EPE Research Center, as of April 2012, 44 states (a tally that includes the District of Columbia) had publicly reported school-level graduation rates using the federal adjusted cohort method, as required by the 2008 regulations. Four additional states reported planning to release their cohort rates soon, but had not done so as of Diplomas Count’s publication deadline.

Uniformity Nationwide

The U.S. Department of Education now requires all states to calculate high school graduation rates using a common formula. According to a survey by the EPE Research Center, 44 states have publicly reported rates consistent with federal regulations.

Three states—Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma—indicated they do not plan to report rates using the new federal formula this year. The U.S. Department of Education granted Idaho and Kentucky waivers to delay reporting of cohort-based graduation rates in light of challenges encountered implementing their statewide data systems. Oklahoma reported expecting to release rates compliant with the regulatory requirements by 2014, but did not provide additional details.

The 2008 regulations also required states to report disaggregated cohort graduation rates for specific student groups defined on the basis of race and ethnicity, poverty, disability status, and English-language proficiency. Thirty-seven states have publicly reported rates for each of these mandated groups; seven states have released results only in the aggregate. In addition, 29 states have posted detailed results by gender and 14 states have disaggregated graduation rates for other groups, such as migrant or “at risk” students.

A large majority of states are poised to meet the federal requirement to apply the adjusted cohort rate to accountability determinations for the 2011-12 school year. In fact, 23 states have already done so for 2010-11. All of the remaining states—with the exceptions of Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma—reported planning to use cohort-based rates for 2011-12 accountability decisions.

Preparing to Plummet

Beyond calling attention to a lack of uniformity in graduation-rate calculations during the early NCLB years, researchers and policy analysts had also raised concerns that the particular formulas chosen by most states would tend to inflate their graduation rates relative to other, more accurate methods. As a result, it has long been anticipated that graduation rates in many states would drop—perhaps precipitously—upon switching to a cohort-based method.

Even a cursory review of data from states that have released data compliant with the 2008 regulations suggests that the reported rates for many states will be much lower according to the new cohort rate than they were under the previous methods. In the District of Columbia, for example, the reported graduation rate dropped from 73 percent to 59 percent after introducing a cohort-based rate; Georgia’s rate was also about 14 percentage points lower after the switch.

The difference in reported rates before and after introducing the cohort method will depend on a variety of factors, among them the accuracy of the previous calculation. Both the District of Columbia and Georgia discontinued a particular method—the leaver rate—that many experts believe to be particularly prone to artificially inflating the graduation rate. However, significant drops may be found even in states that previously reported cohort-based rates, as they implement other required changes related to accounting for transfers and defining a regular high school graduate. One such state, Florida, reports a federally compliant class of 2011 graduation rate of 70.6 percent, 9.5 points lower than the cohort-based rate currently used for accountability purposes.

Vol. 31, Issue 34, Page 27

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