Education Chat

Diplomas Count: A Chat With the Editors

Christopher B. Swanson, director, EPE Research Center and Lynn Olson, executive project editor, Diplomas Count discussed the findings of our recently released report on graduation rates.

Diplomas Count: A Chat With the Editors
June 29, 2006
Guests: Christopher B. Swanson, director, EPE Research Center and Lynn Olson, executive project editor, Diplomas Count.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about the recent release of Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates. The report has attracted media attention from newspapers, and television and radio stations nationwide, fueling the growing debate about graduation rates in this country. We have some excellent questions waiting to be answered about the report and graduation-rate issues in general. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Pamela Smith, Education Consultant:
What affect has high stakes testing had on students not receiving a diploma?

Lynn Olson:
Research to date has yielded mixed answers to that question. The most recent study (described in the June 21 issue of Education Week) suggests that state exit exams, especially the more challenging ones, are leading to lower high school graduation rates and spurring more students to pursue a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate. The study by John Robert Warren, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and two graduate students, based its conclusions on more than 25 years of data. But other studies, such as one by Martin Carnoy, have found no statistically significant effect of high-stakes tests on graduation rates. The data we gathered for Diploma Counts from the 2002-03 school year show that graduation rates in states with high school exit exams are somewhat lower, on average, than in states without such exams. But that’s not a causal relationship--for example, some of those states may have had low graduation rates prior to introducing an exit test.

Question from Kevin O’Mara, Principal, Ridgewood High School:
What are the essential courses every high schooler must graduate having taken? What is a typical/recommended graduation requirement listing?

Lynn Olson:
Diplomas Count looked at the number of course credits required by each state to earn a standard high school diploma, based on data collected by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States for the 2005-06 school year. On average, students are expected to earn 20.5 total credits to obtain a standard diploma, with state requirements ranging from a low of 13 total credits in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to a high of 24 total credits in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia. In the typical state, earning a standard diploma requires four credits in English and three credits each in math, science, and history/social studies. We did not gather data on the courses required to make up those credits (such as U.S. history or geometry). In the last year or two, we’ve seen a number of states increase their graduation requirements so that all students must take a college-preparatory curriculum as the default option--including math through at least Algebra 2 and four years of grade-level English--but we don’t know much about the actual content within those course titles. Studies have found that students who take a rigorous academic curriculum in high school are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Question from Colleen Murphey, Research, A+ Illinois:
There are several criticisms of the CPI method that I would like to hear your view on:

1) As I understand it, CPI rates are computed at school district level and then aggregated to produce a state rate. The operation rules of this method, as developed by its authors Swanson and Chaplin, exclude one quarter of a district from analysis. Additionally, progression rates that are greater than 1, which do occur, are either rounded to 1 or assigned a missing value code, strategies which exclude even more of the sample. While these exclusions are acceptable for a district-level, “snapshot” view of graduation rates, Miao and Haney (2004) argued that the method will have “unknown bias” at the state and national level due to this “trimming” of data. Have these concerns been addressed in your methodology, and how?

2) The most reliable way to track graduation rates is longitudinal, individual tracking of students, according to most literature I’ve come across. Diplomas Count states that 17 states currently “have data to calculate individually tracked graduation rates.” How do the rates that EPE Research Center calculated using the CPI method compare to these 17 states’ theoretically accurate reported rates? What does this say about the precision of the CPI method?

Please see for citations:

Miao, J. and Haney, W. (2004, October 15). “High School Graduation Rates: alternative Methods and Impliations.” Boston College. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12(55). Retrieved 6/22/06 from

Christopher B. Swanson:
I often get questions about the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method I use in my research. There won’t be time to get into all the details today. We have information on the method posted online at (and also available in reported I authored while at the Urban Institute

But I will mention a couple main points.

The CPI like any other method is imperfect, although we believe it is the best way to calculate a uniform graduation rate using a uniform source of data for every district and state in the country. Our data come from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD) which contains information on every district in the country. Being able to calculate comparable rates nationwide is a very important advantage right now because states calculate rates in such different ways that make state-reported statistics impossible to compare.

My research takes a bottom-up approach to analysis, starting by calculating district rates and then averaging upward to get state and national figures. We are able to calculate a rate this way for the districts enrolling about 93 percent of students in the country. So there is not much missing data here. (I belive your point about excluding districts refers to districts that only have elementary students - of which there are quite a few actually).

One big advantage of going bottom-up is that you can look at results for every district and see patterns within states. As a researcher, I am also wary of using highly aggregated data (like state-level information) because so much can be going on under the surface. It’s much easer to diagnose data issues when working closer to the ground.

I think there is a lot of agreement that being able to track students individually will help us get closer to accurate graduation rates. However it’s not a silver bullet. Longitudinal tracking systems are still dependent on quality data entry and need to be well-resourced to create accurate information.

Right now, about 17 states have the kind of data system framework that could track students through graduation. But some of these states have just put these systems in place recently. So it could be a few years before they can calculate a true longitudinal rate for a cohort of students.

The good news, I think, is that discussions of methodology like this are capturing people’s attention and moving the discussion in a positive direction.

Comment from Dorothy Blaustein, Retired Teacher, Bridgeport CT Board of Education:
Do you know about a program that is in place at Harding High School in Bridgeport, CT? Here is a brief description of it: In many classes in this school there were those who always disrupted the learning process. These young men and women were removed from the classroom and an evening program was instituted for them. It was discovered that many of these students were talented. They have become eager students.

Question from :
Should a variety of assessments be used to measure students’ abilities?

Lynn Olson:
Absolutely. That’s in keeping with national standards that suggest the use of multiple measures to determine what students know and can do. Those standards suggest that, particularly when it comes to high-stakes decisions about students, states shouldn’t be relying on a single measure. At a minimum, there should be an appeals process that enables students to show they can meet the standards by demonstrating their knowledge and skills in another way, such as through a portfolio of their work.

Question from Robert Lange, retired prof of educational research:
For the most part the students who will not graduate from high school can be identified by grade three or grade four. Why don’t we spend more time and resources with those kids so that they can achieve their optimum levels regardless of what thar may be?

Christopher B. Swanson:
There is actually a good deal of activity underway on this very issue right now. Researchers at the Consoritum for School Reform in Chicago and at Johns Hopkins have been working to develop “early-warning” system that can help to identify students at risk of dropping out while there is still time to help keep them on track. They find that factors like course grades, behavior, and attendance patterns are strong predictors even in the elementary grades.

This kind of research has been slow in coming because these kinds early warning systems require the ability to track students over time and collect rich information about them. As more states and districts upgrade their data systems, I think we’ll see more early interventions with at-risk students that are really able to tailor interventions to individual students’ needs.

Question from :
How can parents and teachers prepare and motivate children to learn?

Lynn Olson:
For parents, I think one of the most basic answers is to stay involved in your kid’s education, to read to them, to ask them complex questions, and to focus on effort as the key to learning, starting at a very early age. Keep on top of whether they’re attending class, turning in their homework, etc. Research also suggests that the kinds of feedback we give to children is important--it should focus on the task at hand and what they can do to improve their learning. Finally, I think it’s pretty clear that teacher expectations (and parental expectations) matter enormously. Schools where there are strong relationships between students and adults, supportive teachers, and a focused and rigorous curriculum tend to have lower dropout rates.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Technical difficulties interrupted yesterday’s chat about the release of Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have created for you. We still have many questions waiting to be answered. So we will continue the chat now ...

Question from David Yoshihara, Director, Elk Grove Unified:
At a time when colleges and universities are clamoring that students are not coming to them prepared and when grade inflation appears rampant in our school system, it appears that the diploma may carry less weight than it once did. How might we work at making the diploma a more meaningful document for employers and students alike?

Lynn Olson:
David, as you probably know, there are lots of efforts underway to connect the expectations required to graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and the workforce, to address the very problems you’re raising. But studies suggest that employers may not even look at high school transcripts in making hiring decisions, which reinforces the message to students that how they do in school doesn’t matter. Familiarizing local employers with research showing that grades are still one of the best predictors of students’ future performance and making it easier for them to access and understand high school transcripts might help.

Question from Dan Hunter, principal, Classic City High School, Athens, GA:
What is your opinion on exit exams? In Georgia students are required to pass five exit exams (math, science, social studies, language arts, and writing). If a student fails just one of these test, they are denied a diploma. Minority students generally do worse on these tests, thus denying diplomas for our most needy individuals.

Christopher B. Swanson:
Dan, exit exams are certainly a hot issue and I don’t think I’ll weigh in with an opinion. But our report finds that close to half of the states (23) have an exit exam in place as a graduation requirement for the 2005-06 school year. This number has risen over recent years and we are also also seeing more states pegging their tests to 10th grade standards or higher. So, more and also more rigorous exit exams. We can debate whether exit exams are good or bad (and there is mixed research on questions like whether the tests lead to more dropout). But since establishing an exit exam is a legitimate state prerogative, maybe there is a more salient question here. If there is an exam in place, how do we make sure that all students are receiving the kind of high-quality education they will need to actually pass the test? I think the latter question is a more important one from an educational perspective. But it often gets overlooked in the heated political debates over testing policy.

Question from John Stiles, Science Consultant, Heartland Area Education Agency, Johnston, Iowa:
Since so many students do not feel that their high school education is meaningful, and that in reality, a high school diploma is not necessary for college admission, shouldn’t there be a greater emphasis on making the school experience more about connecting with the real world rather than on relentless rote memorization?

Lynn Olson:
There are lots of efforts now to make the high school experience more relevant and engaging for students. I think the challenge remains how to make high schools both rigorous and relevant. Too often, “relevance” has meant giving some students a watered-down education.

Question from Hal Portner, consultant:
Your research suggests a set of reasons why students drop out. In the course of conducting the reasearch, were you able to identify characteristics in the schools themselves that directly influenced students NOT to drop out? For example, teacher quality; extra curricula activities; sports; student mediation programs; adjustment counseling availability; and classes in art,music or industrial arts.

Christopher B. Swanson:
The factors that have been identified as leading causes of dropping out are also (maybe not surprisingly) the same kinds of things associated with lower educational performance more generally. One reason for this is probably that student who are poorly-prepared academically when they enter high school are at greater risk for dropping out.

We do not look at school-level factors in our study. But I would expect that were we able, we might very well find that things like teacher quality, principal leadership, academic and extra curricular offerings would be related to graduation rates. It is our hope that the report will lead other researcher to take a closer and more direct look at just these issues.

Question from Dr. John Fulwiler, Ed Leadership Doctoral Program, Southeastern Louisiana State Univ.:
Do diplomas ensure that graduates are “citizens”? Assessment and high stake testing do little to address citizenship of high school graduates... What can be done to address this issue? Service-Learning? Required community service?

Lynn Olson:
Good question. In fact, there’s lots of concern these days that the democratic mission of schools is being lost to the focus on academic achievement and workforce preparation. One group that’s working on this issue is the national Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. It makes the point that democracy is something that has to be taught, just like math and reading. See

Question from Klaudia Fisher, Teacher, Union City Mi. Schools:
Our small high school (400 students) discontinued our Alternative Education program (one teacher, one aide, and 20+ students) because NCLB requirements necessitate the need for multiple “highly qualified” instructors, rather than one teacher in a self-contained classroom. How can small schools support alternative ed. programs given these restrictions?

Lynn Olson:
I don’t have an easy answer to that. You’re absolutely right that many small schools have focused on the teacher as coach or generalist, while NCLB really emphasizes the teacher as an expert in the specific subject they teach. I’m not aware of a good resolution to this yet.

Question from Jim Cozad, Retired Teacher, Bellingham School District:
Social/Health problems and poverty play a major role in the bottom 30% not making it to graduation. When is the education establishment going to admit that this problem will not be fixed with better teachers, curriculums, and “restructured systems” without the help of local communities, governments, and partnerships to deal with the economic realities of a new economy and dysfunctional families and communities?

Christopher B. Swanson:
One of the most striking findings in our research is that graduation rates are often very closely tied to characteristics of communities. About 60 percent of all student in urban districts graduate from high school. We get similar figures when we look at high-poverty or racially segregated communities. Not just for graduation rates, but more generally public education systems are very much a reflection of the communities they serve. Problem like high crime rates, drug abuse, unemployment, poverty, can impact education in very serious ways. Public schools have a responsibility to educate the students to come through the door - regardless of whether they are rich or poor, Black or White. But that doesn’t mean that schools can or should have to go it alone. There is increasing attention in high school reform circles to broader developmental, social, and community perspectives. One way this is happening is by trying to provide “wrap-around” services like counseling to student in school. But there are also efforts underway to build stronger ties between schools, social service agencies, and other institutions in the community like businesses and faith-based organizations.

Question from :
Students with linquistic difficulty can do well if they are assessed by practical examinations . What do you think?

Lynn Olson:
I’m not sure what you mean by “practical” examinations. It is true that assessing students who are not yet fluent in English is complex, since tests may be measuring English fluency as well as academic content knowledge and skills, particularly if the tests contain word problems, etc.

Question from Bill Betzen, Computer Applications Teacher, Quintanilla Middle School, Dallas:
First: The most common omissions on school district web sites across the US appear to be student enrollment numbers by grade for the past 10 years, along with annual graduation numbers. That is certainly true here in Texas. Why are such basic facts about our schools so consistently missing? Is it because it makes it easier for schools, or districts, to credibly claim that they have a “dropout rate” of 1% or less? Such claims are made even with graduation numbers that are less than 50% of the number of students who were enrolled in the 9th grade 3+ years earlier. Where does that other 50% of students go? Why are such basic enrollment and graduation numbers so consistently missing from so many school web sites?

Second: If the failure to realistically focus on their own futures is one of the most basic characteristics of dropouts, why do we not have more programs to help students focus on their own futures? The Middle School Archive Project, described at, we developed as a direct effort to encourage our students to focus on their own futures. It is a 10-year rotating time-capsule system that appears to be working after less than two years. We ask others to look it over, making their own recommendations, to help us all develop the best systems possible to motivate our students. We cannot wait any longer with a 50% dropout rate!

Christopher B. Swanson:
Bill, you are hitting a very important issue right on the head - detailed and accurate information that could help us better measure graduation and dropout rates can be very hard to come by. And even what we probably think are pretty basic and essential pieces of data can be hard to find. I do not think this necessarily stems from deliberate attempts to hide problems (like a high dropout rate). But the fact that more information is not publicly reported does allow suspicions along those lines to simmer, which can undermine trust. Like so many other things, some state agencies do a good job at getting the raw numbers out to the public, but others don’t. Collecting detailed data and reporting it to the public is fairly new ground for many states. So as they gain more experience, I think we’ll be likely to see fuller public reporting of this kind of information.

Question from Cathy Smith, Media Specialist, Haralson County High School:
Would we have more success with the graduation rate if we raised the mandatory age for school attendance to age 18 (unless, of course, they reach graduation before age 18)in all states?

Lynn Olson:
Some researchers suggest that graduation rates would improve by raising the age at which students can legally leave school. For Diplomas Count we reviewed data on compulsory attendance from the U.S. Department of Labor. Almost half the states require students to remain in school only until 16 years of age. And many states have exemptions that permit students to leave school even earlier if they have parental consent or are employed. Under such exemptions, seven states allow students to leave school at age 14.

Question from Barbara Lovejoy, founder of nonprofit, Generación Floreciente and BYU adjunct professor:
Chris: I saw you on a program on CNN where you mentioned that some studies had shown that money put into a school to help close the achievement gap (one being # of graduates)isn’t an answer by itself. Could you please elaborate on this a little more? Thanks!

Christopher B. Swanson:
When I was on “Lou Dobbs” last week, the issue of education spending came up in the conversation. I was commenting on the long-running, and seemingly-unanswerable question of “Does Money Matter?” Educational researchers have been going around on this one for a long time now and there still is no definitive answer to the question. But in some ways I think it’s the wrong question to be asking. It’s not just HOW MUCH money is being spent that matters but HOW SMARTLY it is being used that will drive improvement. We tend to focus on the bottom line, in part, because that’s where we have the data. Trying to follow the dollars down to the classroom is very difficult, but would give us a better idea of how to spend more effectively.

Question from Matt Laliberte, Student, Boston College:
In the state of New York, the non-Regents diploma was done away with, leaving only the Regents diploma as an option for all students. The logic behind this was the need for all students to receive a challenging curriculum. Pragmatically, however, it resulted in many elite students moving into AP and IB classes and programs to distinguish themselves from “regular” students. Do AP, IB, and other such programs do a disservice to the efforts of state agencies to reform graduation policies?

Lynn Olson:
The policies are still requiring students who did not previously take a college-preparatory curriculum to do so, so theoretically the goal of providing a more challenging curriculum is still being met, although it’s important to look beneath the course labels at the actual content of the classes and make sure it’s not being diluted. You’re raising a separate issue about whether such policies will lead to more heterogeneous classes or not, and whether the standard diploma will lose its value over time if the more able students choose yet more advanced options. I don’t think we know the answers to those questions yet, but they’re worth asking.

Question from Evelyn Adams, Elementary Teacher:
In Maryland we see a significant drop in Math achievement occurring for the Middle School grades on our state tests. Has there been any research into what causes this and what we can do to remediate the deficiencies earlier?

Lynn Olson:
This is a concern across the country. One reason for this drop may by that many middle school teachers who teach mathematics lack adequate grounding in mathematics themselves, particularly when called upon to teach subjects like algebra and geometry.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
Please explain how much more high school graduates earn over their work life than those people who do not get their high school diploma.

Christopher B. Swanson:
There has been quite a bit of research on the economic (and other benefits) of a high school education. Cecilia Rouse, an economist from Princeton, has studied the issue. She finds that an individual person who drops out earns over a quarter-million dollars less over his or her work life than a high school graduate. That’s a high cost for that individual. But there are also broader social consequences. Dropouts collectively contribute less in terms of taxes, are more likely to be involved in crime, and more likely to be dependent on public assistance. So, this is a problem for everyone, not just the young man or woman who drops out. We often hear that it will be difficult and expensive to solve our dropout problems. True. But there are also large long-term costs to not addressing the issue. So we can pay now, or pay later.

Question from Timothy L. Krug, PhD., Retired Public School Administrator:
Is there anyone who has given thought to including a list of demonstrated skills or abilities as part of the graduation process?

Lynn Olson:
There are some schools that require students to complete portfolios or exhibitions to graduate that require them to demonstrate specific skills or abilities, such as the ability to present and defend an oral argument. But I’m not aware of any effort to include a list of specific skills or abilities on a diploma, such as you might include on a resume.

Question from Ann MAcGowan, Educational Content Writer Newport Beach, Claifornia:
With 25.7 percent of California’s students being English Language Learners and more entering the sate each day, how realistic is it for California to attain the target 100% graduation rate by the targeted years 2013-2014?

Christopher B. Swanson:
Good question. One could also ask how realistic a 100 percent target is for students in the state as a whole, where overall graduation rate is 71 percent. The inside-baseball answer to this question is that what really matters in the end when it comes to adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind is how much improvement has to be shown on a year-by-year basis. In California, that’s 0.1%. So the 100 percent goal is a bit deceptive. The big-picture answer to the question is that what accountability systems can help us do is identify groups or school systems that are struggling so we can give them the help they need. Is 100% an unrealistic goal? Maybe. But regardless of exactly where we set the bar or how much time we put on the accountability clock, I think there are some very positive signs underneath these kinds of discussions. We are starting to have real conversations about how to address the needs of specific groups of students who had fallen been below the radar for so long (like English Language Learners and special education students). This is a step in the right direction, but just a first step.

Question from James Wiswell, Counselor, La Puente High School:
In all of my years being a high school counselor we have never had a business call the guidance office requesting a copy of the students transcript to verify that a student actually did graduate. Why is this? I am speaking now about California...I am not sure if this exist in other states which a busines s cannot hire someone WITHOUT verifying that they actually did obtain their HS Diploma. Ought this be a law, thus giving more teeth to what the Diploma means in the so-called real world?

Lynn Olson:
You’ve hit upon an important point. Although business leaders talk about the importance of education, to my knowledge few use high school transcripts in making hiring decisions and many don’t like to hire students directly out of high school. There was an effort during the 1990s, led by the now defunct National Alliance of Business and others, to get business leaders to commit to using high school transcripts in making hiring decisions but it was short-lived. It’s hard to tell students that working hard in school is important if they can’t see that it counts outside of school.

Question from Mrs. Navas de Rentas, Educator:
Is it too soon to correlate drop out rate with high stake testing?

Christopher B. Swanson:
The connection between high-stakes testing and dropout is a big one with no clear answer at this point. Some research finds a connection (in one direction or the other) and other research doesn’t find much convincing evidence of an effect. In part, this is because most policy research focuses too narrowly on the testing policy and not enough on other things the states may be doing that could affect the graduation rate. For example, a state may introduce an exit exam but it may also put other programs into place at the same time designed to help students achieve to these new expectations. So the jury is still out. But what I would hope to see in future research (because there will certainly be more studies to come) is a broader view of state policies and initiatives.

Question from Mrs. Navas de Rentas:
What do you know statistically about (American) language minority students (limited English proficient or English language learners) and achieving a high school diploma?

Lynn Olson:
Diplomas Count does not include information on this topic and, to my knowledge, it’s pretty scarce. Many states did not start collecting and reporting data on English language learners as a separate subgroup prior to the No Child Left Behind Act.

Question from Barbara Lovejoy, founder of nonprofit, Generación Floreciente and BYU adjunct professor:
Because of the high Hispanic dropout doesn’t it make sense to specifically address the issues that are causing them to dropout? These issues may be very different than why other ethnic groups dropout.

Christopher B. Swanson:
Students dropout for all different kinds of reasons that may range from poor academic preparation in elementary and middle school to personal circumstances like the need to support a family. It will also be the case different factors may drive dropout problems for certain student groups or different communities. I think a first step in dealing with the challenges that Hispanics or other groups face with graduation is getting good hard numbers. We need to answer questions like - Is there a problem? How serious is it? Then we can move on to the more detailed questions - When are we losing students? Why? Taking this kind of broader look will allow us to more effectively identify problem, diagnose the cause, and design interventions that will be particularly effective given the different challenges faced by certain groups.

Question from Cathy Sims, editor, biz.ed Guide:
Would being more flexible and open on allowing indpendent study and outside school experiences count towards academic requirements make a difference for students who may fall in the 30% at risk for not graduating?

Lynn Olson:
I don’t know the answer to that. Many people are arguing for more flexible learning options for students who are not faring well in traditional high schools--which might include such ideas as independent study, internships, and other real world experiences--but I think the notion is that the academic expectations or standards would remain the same. In other words, outside-of-school experiences would not substitute for academics but ideally be a way to hook kids into academics and help them learn.

Question from Bill Betzen, Teacher, Quintanilla Middle School, Dallas IDS:
While this report is a great step forward, would it not be more accurate to have a dropout rate based on 7th grade enrollment rather than 9th grade enrollment since many students begin dropping out in middle school?

Christopher B. Swanson:
It’s certainly true that some students do not wait until the 9th grade to drop out (regardless of what state laws and regulations have to say about it). But when calculating a graduation rate, you have to start somewhere. We use a 9th grade starting point for a couple reasons. It’s the conventional start of high school. And it’s the way No Child Left Behind approaches the issue (which means that state also have to follow suit). Does that mean this is the only way to look at the issue? Nope. That’s why I believe it is important to look at what I think of as an “extended family” indicators to better understand the issue. This include an on-time graduation rate starting at 9th grade. But we should also look at dropout patterns before the 9th grade, numbers students being held back in grade, and students to take longer than 4 years to graduate. It’s perfectly alright to focus on a particular indicator for a particular purpose like school accountability. But we ignore important parts of the problem if we don’t take a broader view, which makes it more difficult to actually solve the problem.

Question from David Edgerson, Assistant Principal, Schultz Middle School:
How does the guest feel about students going to school for 13 years (K-12) and not being able to graduate or participate in the commencement ceremonies because of low scores on a particular state mandated test?

Lynn Olson:
Standards for educational and psychological testing suggest that no single test should ever be the sole basis for making a high-stakes decision about an individual student, such as graduation. Having said that, mere attendance should not be the criterion for earning a diploma either.

Question from kristen gunn, curriculum manager, music center of los angeles county:
Can you explain the different options for graduation that NCLB offers and the future restrictions placed upon students who opt for an alternative?

Lynn Olson:
There’s been a lot of confusion about this, in part because of some erroneous information circulating on the Web. NCLB is focused on school and district accountability. To make adequate yearly progress under the law, high schools and districts must meet academic targets in reading and math, as well as graduation targets. States are supposed to calculate graduation rates based on the percent of 9th graders who go on to earn a standard diploma in four years. The rates are not supposed to include GEDs, certificates of completion, and other such credentials. But the law says nothing about consequences for individual students. The diploma requirements for individual students, the consequences for not meeting them, and the options available for students who do not meet standard diploma requirements, are a state issue and are not addressed in the law.

Question from Louie F. Rodriguez, Associate Professor, Carlos Albizu University, Miami, FL:
Is there a policy or existing program any where in the U.S. that allows 2-or 4-year universities to enroll or serve dropouts in some capacity?

Lynn Olson:
There are certainly instances of this. In California, for example, students who do not pass the state’s high school exit test can still enroll in programs in community colleges, even though the tests are a high school graduation requirement. Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based group, has suggested that dropouts and students at risk of dropping out should have “on ramps” into postsecondary education that actually accelerate their learning. It might seem contradictory, but JFF suggests that for some students, a different setting than the traditional high school--including the chance to be on a campus and see what college-level expectations are like--may help turn things around.

Question from Adam Berlin, teacher, Lawrence Middle School, Lawrence, NY:
Social promotion is a big problem in the middle school in which I work. However, studies show that retention is not the answer either. As a result, students enter high school ill equipped to handle the academic rigors, are used to passing without doing work, and help cause an eventual decrease in the graduation rate. My question is, what do you think about the idea of requiring students to earn credit in middle school in order to foster accountability, and, to your knowledge, is there any precedent for doing so? Thank you.

Lynn Olson:
You’re right that research suggests retention is not the answer; in fact, it may place students at risk of not graduating. I haven’t seen anything on requiring middle school students to earn credits as a way to foster accountability. Providing early intervention to students who fail courses, have excessive absences, etc., does appear to be important.

Question from joyce mann Principal, St. Mary School:
I am concerned about the fact that high stakes testing does not seem to take into effect those students with some learning disabilities, such as reading, dyslexia, etc. How do we accomodate these students, yet still maintain high performance on state mandated tests?

Lynn Olson:
One of the biggest issues that states are struggling with is how to assess students with a wide range of disabilities, and which types of accommodations are appropriate under which circumstances. The whole idea of accommodations is to permit students to show what they know without changing the nature of what’s being tested. States also are developing alternate assessments for students for whom the regular tests are not appropriate, even with accommodations but it’s a very new field. That’s why using standardized tests for high stakes purposes for individual students (as opposed to schools) is particularly controversial when it comes to students with disabilities.

Question from :
What remedies are available for students who arrive in high school without the math and reading skills needed to tackle high school work?

Lynn Olson:
A number of schools are experimenting with “double doses” of math and reading for students who enter high school not yet ready to tackle high school work. The Talent Development High School model, for example, includes ninth grade success academies that provide double course offerings in English and math. In the first semester, students take courses designed to help with strategic reading and the transition to advanced mathematics; in the second semester, they move into regular college-preparatory courses so they do not fall behind in earning the credits needed to graduate. The key is to allow students to take such transition or “catch up” courses without compromising their transcripts, so they still have the credits needed to be promoted from the 9th to the 10th grade and to be on track to graduate. America’s Choice, a whole-school-design model based in Washington, also has developed courses for students who start high school far below grade level, known as Ramp-Up to Algebra I and Ramp-Up to Literacy.

Question from GEOFFREY KASHDAN, special education teacher, Eagles Landing Middle School:
I believe that if we had multi-option quality high school diplomas which would include academic and career options we could significantly reduce the drop-out rate while improving services to kids with all kinds of skills and talents to offer society. Do you agree?

Christopher B. Swanson:
Geoffery, a lot of attention has been directed to the issue of high-stakes testing. But you’re touching on an important issue that caught our eye when working on this report. That is, the issue of high school credentials states offer. States have authority to establish exit exams. But states can also decide how many credentials to have (a regular diploma only or a range of options) and set the expectations for what it takes to earn any given credential. There hasn’t been as much discussion about that. Giving students the opportunity to earn a diploma by taking a rigorous course of study with a career focus may help keep some students in school by making education more engaging and relevant. But I think the “rigorous” part of this is very important. With enriched career education, we should be aiming for both rigor and relevance and not sacrificing one for the other.

Question from Jeffrey M. Reynolds, Principal, Williamson High School, Williamson, WV:
In West Virginia, state code allows students to “dropout” or withdraw from school at the age of 16 with parental consent. Did any of the studies look at what age the states allow droputs, do any have “zero-age policies” meaning that students cannot dropout even with parental consent? Also, do any of them address how big of an impact these age consents have on graduation rates (i.e., dropout rates.)

Lynn Olson:
Diplomas Count did review the age at which students can legally leave school across the 50 states, based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The age of compulsory attendance ranges from 16 to 18, with almost half the states requiring students to remain in school only until age 16. Many states, though, have exemptions that allow students to leave school even earlier if they have parental consent or are employed. Under such exemptions, seven states allow students to leave school at age 14. Some researchers have suggested that raising the age at which students can legally leave school could help increase graduation rates.

Question from Bill Heuer, MHLA (Mass Home Learning Assoc):
I have some concerns with the Diploma becoming the “Holy Grail”. Especially with such a large number of high school students (w/diplomas) not making it through the first year of college. High Schools seem to pride themselves on the % of seniors “getting accepted” to institutes of higher learning. The real stat should be how well they do when they get there. Is there any research in this area?

Christopher B. Swanson:
I don’t know that we’re aiming to become the Holy Grail. But we are attempting to provide hard numbers to help folks better understand the nature of graduation rates in this country. I mentioned in an earlier response that it’s important to look beyond any one single indicator if we want a complete view of the issue. A graduation rate is one important sign of the performance of a school or school system. But there is also the essential issue of what students are learning. It’s great if we improve graduation rates, but (obviously) it’s a bit of an empty victory if student’s aren’t learning anything and aren’t able to move on and be successful in higher education or the workplace. Graduation rates are hard enough to get a handle on. Following students once they leave high school to see how they fare is even harder. But there is more and more interest in understanding this. College- and work-readiness has become a high-profile issue in reform and policy circles. A number of groups are tackling the issue right now and we may very well take a closer look at this ourselves in future installments of the project. So stay tuned.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this online chat. And a special thanks to our guests for taking the time to answer many questions. This chat is now over. A transcript will be posted shortly on

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

Chat Editors