School & District Management

States’ Graduation-Rate Effort Inches Forward

By Scott J. Cech — July 30, 2008 3 min read
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Three years after the National Governors Association announced that all 50 members had agreed to standardize their states’ graduation-rate formulas, the group is only marginally closer to its goal of a truly national definition of high school graduation rates, according to NGA data released late last month.

The Washington-based organization’s latest progress report finds that only 16 states currently calculate and publicly report a graduation rate consistent with the formula agreed to in 2005 in the NGA’s Graduation Counts Compact.

That’s just three more states than reported their graduation rates according to that formula in 2006, when the last progress report was released.

Despite their governors’ signatures, three states—Hawaii, Illinois, and North Dakota—have no plans to adopt the graduation-calculation standard, according to the report, “Implementing Graduation Counts: State Progress to Date, 2008.”

The NGA formula is particularly significant, given rule changes proposed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings this past April. The proposed rules, which specifically mention the NGA formula as a model, would “ensure that all states use the same formula to calculate how many students graduate from high school on time,” Ms. Spellings said in remarks in April.

Daria L. Hall, the assistant director for K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that seeks to improve the education of low-income and minority students, called the NGA’s progress report “encouraging progress.” But she voiced disappointment that some states have effectively withdrawn from their 2005 commitment to the compact.

“That is a real problem,” Ms. Hall said. “This is a commitment that the governors made, and we now see the states walking away from that commitment.”

Simple Formula

The formula outlined in the voluntary compact calls for states to determine their high school graduation rates by dividing the number of students who graduate within four years with a diploma by the number of first-time, entering 9th graders four years earlier.

Idaho does not have a timeline for acquiring the necessary data to use the formula, and Montana plans to adopt the graduation formula at some unspecified time. Aside from those states and the three that don’t plan to participate, all others expect to be using the formula by 2012, according to the report.

The formula allows the calculation to be adjusted to take transfers into account, and permits special education students and recent immigrants with limited English skills more time to graduate.

Given the logistical challenges of setting up a statewide data system to track individual students over time—one of the requirements of the compact—“I think it’s not surprising that we ... encounter some bumps along the way,” said Bridget K. Curran, the National Governors Association’s program director of teacher quality, graduation rates, and compensation.

“By and large, states are on track implementing this as they said they were going to,” she added. “By the end of this year, we’ll be ... close to half [the states], which is a good critical mass.”

Some Doubts

Not everyone, however, is so sanguine about the progress.

“We appreciate NGA’s goal of 50-state compliance with a common high school grad rate,” said Elissa Leonard, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, in an e-mail. “Given that only 16 states currently are calculating the rate, we hope that states move more quickly to implement a common cohort rate.”

The proposed federal rules don’t specify what the graduation formula will be—only that it will be “consistent with the definition adopted by the National Governors Association.” Ms. Leonard said the Education Department is still on track to publish the final rules on Nov. 1, and to have them become effective one month later.

Ms. Hall of the Education Trust indicated that even if a few states continue to stay only nominal signatories to the compact, their reluctance to follow through might soon be moot.

“Fortunately we have every reason to be believe that there will be the weight of federal regulation behind ... this more accurate calculation,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as States Inch Forward on Graduation Rate Standard

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