School & District Management

U.S. Graduation Rate: Same Results, Different Measures

By Caralee J. Adams — May 06, 2014 4 min read
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Along with the news last week that the country’s high school graduation rate crossed a new threshold of 80 percent, the federal government ushered in a consistent measure of student progress and sped up the cycle for releasing data.

The National Center for Education Statistics, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released the first national reporting of high school completion by state using a new calculation method known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). The new measure is considered theoretically to be more accurate because it tracks individual students over time. The long-used previous method—the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)–looks at the total number of freshmen compared to seniors four years later.

“This is the first time we are putting out information on a national rate that speaks not to an estimated number, but to the actual number of kids finishing high school within four years,” said Ross C. Santy, the associate commissioner in the administrative data division at the NCES. The new approach captures students who may have transferred to another school, and, with most states now using the measure, allows state-by-state comparisons.

This year’s federal report included the cohort graduation rates from 47 states. Because their systems weren’t ready yet, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma used the old ACGR measure, said Mr. Santy. The Education Department required all states to begin using the newer, more-uniform measure in 2008, but since that meant following students over time, the information didn’t become available in most states until late 2012.

Marking Progress

According to the new cohort measure, the rate of high school completion for 2011-12 was 80 percent, up from 79 percent the year before. Using the old method to look at change over time, graduation rates have climbed from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012, with the biggest gains happening since 2006.

“After languishing in the low 70s for decades, in less than 10 years we have really accelerated the high-school-graduation rate, while increasing standards and rigor. This is a huge event,” said Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., noting that the rates from the new and old measures are closely aligned. “That means that we have been making good decisions based on those estimates, but now we have even better information.”

The federal government also accelerated the cycle of graduation-rate reporting by releasing results for the graduating classes of both 2011 and 2012. “There is greater demand, and it’s important to get the information out quickly,” said Robert Balfanz, a co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of another report on the new data issued the same day by the GradNation campaign, an initiative aimed at increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

The fresher data and more-consistent measures will help better inform policymakers, said Paige Koalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which has supported state efforts to track student-level data. “If you have widespread confidence on the accuracy of the information, it will be easier to muster the policy that will try to solve the problem,” she said.

A Closer Look

The new measure allows researchers to break down graduation rates by income and state. It shows some states have been more successful than others in supporting low-income students. In Indiana, for example, there was a 1-percentage-point difference between the graduation rates of low-income students and their higher-income peers. The gap was 28 percentage points in Minnesota.

Some states with lower concentrations of low-income students didn’t fare as well as those with a greater concentration, revealing that a high concentration of poverty does not necessarily correlate with negative outcomes, added Mr. Balfanz.

There was also wide variation among states in graduating students with disabilities. For instance, Louisiana graduates about 72 percent of its students overall, but only 33 percent of those in special education. In comparison, 84 percent of Montana’s class of 2012 graduated on time, along with 81 percent of its students with disabilities.

The differences illuminated in the report will provide an opportunity for states to share best practices, said Jeremy D. Anderson, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Some states that have moved the needle on high school graduation have implemented support services around individualized education programs for special needs students and focused on helping English-language learners, he added.

Much of the progress in high school completion in the past decade is attributed to gains among Latino and African-American students, yet gaps persist. The graduation rate for in 2011-12 was 86 percent for white students, 73 percent for Hispanics, and 69 percent for black students.

The GradNation campaign report notes that between 2002 and 2012, there were 1.2 million fewer students attending 648 fewer “dropout factory” high schools, those where fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

Experts credit the improvement to more awareness of the problem, better accountability, targeted school reform, and enhanced supports for the lowest-performing schools.

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as U.S. Graduation Rate Rises—No Matter How It’s Counted


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