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NCLB Rules Back Common Rate

By Catherine Gewertz — June 05, 2009 5 min read
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While reaffirming the primacy of the four-year graduation rate, federal regulations have opened a door that allows schools to get credit under the No Child Left Behind Act for students who take five or more years to earn a high school diploma.

In a bid to illuminate how well high schools are serving students, the revised regulations, issued in December 2008, tighten up the rules governing how states must calculate and report graduation rates, and how they will be held to account for them. The highest-profile change requires states to depict their graduation rates the same way: as the proportion of each incoming freshman class that earns standard diplomas four years later. Previously, states could decide for themselves how to calculate their graduation rates.

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NCLB Rules Back Common Rate

Eighteen states already use a four-year-cohort calculation that the National Governors Association urged in 2005, and which governors in all 50 states have agreed to use eventually. That approach allows selected English-language learners and students with disabilities to be reassigned into the following year’s cohort, essentially letting them take five years to graduate.

Under NCLB’s existing accountability provisions, students who don’t graduate in four years count against schools’ graduation rates. Many educators have complained that such an approach punishes schools that go the extra mile to keep students from dropping out or to lure back those who have left school.

Since the 2008 regulations change, several states have applied for federal permission to use extended-year rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education. As of April, only one state, Washington, had permission to use them, and that was the result of a waiver granted in 2005.

The new federal regulations give the states an option to calculate an extended-year graduation rate and use it along with the standard four-year rate when determining whether adequate yearly progress is being made. The federal rules also made clear that states need to give more weight to the four-year rate.

Education Department guidance laid out a couple of scenarios for incorporating an extended-year rate. A state could assign an 80 percent weight to its four-year rate and a 20 percent weight to its longer rate. Or it could set a “more aggressive” annual-improvement target for the five-year rate than for the four-year.

Louisiana is already using its own version of a weighted approach for its state accountability system. Its graduation-rate index assigns points for various student outcomes, from zero for a dropout and 90 points for a General Educational Development certificate to 120 for a regular diploma and up to 180 for a diploma with additional endorsements. Under that matrix, schools earn a better score for taking more time to help students earn diplomas than they do if students drop out.

Some advocates worry that because the federal regulations set no clear requirements on how the separate four-year and extended-year rates should interact, states could win the right to use accountability schemes that place too much weight on the longer rates. That approach, they say, could essentially lower the pressure on schools to ensure that the overwhelming majority of students graduate in four years.

“We need to be careful,” says Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices. “An extended-year rate for 1 percent of the kids today can turn into 12 percent of the kids tomorrow. We can’t yield to pressure that lots of kids need extra time, when all they might need is extra support to finish the requirements.”

Massachusetts, which calculates four-year and five-year rates for its state accountability system, has found that traditionally disadvantaged groups of students benefit the most from having a fifth year.

In 2007, the state’s four-year graduation rate—for the group of students who entered as freshmen in 2003—was 81 percent. A year later, the five-year rate was 84 percent, state data show. For Hispanic students, the difference between the four- and five-year rates was 5.9 percentage points. Among those with limited English skills, it was 7.5 points; for African-American males, the difference was 7.6 points.

“Obviously, those students are benefiting from an additional year,” says JC Considine, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Education. “We think it’s important to be able to reflect that in our reporting.”

But Massachusetts has been unable to get credit for those additional diplomas under the federal accountability system. The U.S. Education Department last year rejected its proposal to factor in the five-year rate.

Washington state was as of April the only state allowed to use an extended-year rate for federal accountability purposes.

‘Right Thing to Do’

“For us, it was the right thing to do,” says Bob Harmon, the state education department’s assistant superintendent for special programs and federal accountability. “The standard graduation-rate calculation only allowed for a four-year cohort to be calculated, and that might work for the majority of students ... but it doesn’t get at what I think is the whole purpose, the heart and soul, of No Child Left Behind: those students who are successful, but not necessarily successful in a four-year time frame.”

Washington’s experience shows that statewide, relatively few students take the extra year to graduate. But among some subgroups, and in some districts, the proportions are larger.

In 2005-06, the most recent year for which data were available, Washington state’s four-year graduation rate was 70.4 percent. The five-year rate was 75.1 percent, or 4.7 percentage points more.

The five-year rates for key subgroups were even higher: for African-American students and low-income students, 6.8 percentage points more; for Hispanics, 7.8 percentage points; for those with limited English, 10.7 percentage points; and for students in special education, 13.9 percentage points more.

Most Washington state districts showed five-year rates that were 3 to 7 percentage points higher than their four-year rates, but for one, the extended rate was nearly 15 percentage points more.

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