Opinion
Federal Commentary

Why Not Count Them All?

By Jim Hull — September 03, 2009 4 min read

Before leaving office, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued last October new regulations for how states should calculate high school graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The regulations seemed simple: Take the number of students who graduated, then divide by the number of students who entered high school four years earlier. But what about those students who take longer than four years to graduate? How would they be counted? The short answer is, they wouldn’t.

The October 2008 regulations gave states the option of including “late graduates” in what the Department of Education called an “extended year” graduation rate. But the states would have to apply to the department to do so. Several states have, but confusion remains over how the separate four-year and extended-year rates should interact. (“Rules Allowing Extended Time on Graduation,” April 1, 2009.)

Some educators express concern that allowing states to give credit to schools for late graduates will limit the incentives schools have to make sure students graduate on time. They cite research showing that those who graduate on time have better life outcomes than those who take longer. And therein lies the question.

The answer, on average, is yes. The average on-time graduate has a much better life outcome than the average late graduate. But that is “on average.” The average on-time graduate enters high school as a much higher-performing student from a higher-income family than the average student who graduates late. When comparing late graduates to similar on-time graduates (that is, those with similar achievement levels and socioeconomic characteristics), the picture is much more mixed.

We recently did such a comparison at the Center for Public Education (“Better Late Than Never? Examining Late High School Graduates”) and found that, when comparing late graduates to similar on-time graduates, the on-time graduates are better off than the late graduates in some life outcomes, but not in others.

For example, late graduates are not as likely as similar on-time graduates to earn a college degree, to earn as much income per year, or to be covered by health insurance. But late graduates were just as likely as similar on-time graduates to hold a full-time job, have retirement benefits, be involved in their communities, and lead a healthy lifestyle.

But when students don’t graduate on time, when they fall behind their classmates, we know what the alternatives are: (1) graduate late; (2) seek a General Educational Development credential; or (3) drop out of school altogether. This raises the question, are students better off graduating late than never?

To find an answer, our study also compared life outcomes of late graduates with those of dropouts and GED recipients. The analysis showed that late graduates were better off in most life outcomes, including holding a full-time job, having health and retirement benefits, being involved in their communities, and living healthier lifestyles, than both dropouts and GED recipients. Clearly, our findings showed, students are better off graduating late than never graduating at all, and schools should be recognized—even applauded—for keeping them in the pipeline.

Not everyone is ready to agree, however. The National Governors Association, for example, expressed its concern that if five- and six-year graduates are included in state graduation rates, the percentage of late graduates could go from 1 percent of students today to 12 percent tomorrow. We share the governors’ concern, particularly if the increase in late graduates results from a corresponding decrease in on-time graduation. But if the students graduating late are students who would otherwise have dropped out or earned a GED, wouldn’t this be something to celebrate?

These concerns ignore another fact: Schools already have negative incentives for keeping students for more than four years. An extra year or more is expensive, especially since these students tend to be struggling and are likely to need more resources than the average student. Moreover, schools are having a hard enough time keeping classes’ size at a reasonable level without filling them with students who could have graduated on time but didn’t. Accountability formulas that recognize only on-time graduation rates could have the reverse effect of handing schools a reason not to make the effort.

In a perfect world, students wouldn’t fall behind their classmates, but we don’t live in a perfect world. There are many reasons students fall behind, and not all of them are within the school’s control. But our schools must stick with all of our students, no matter how long it takes, to ensure that they acquire the knowledge and skills needed to earn a diploma.

Instead of debating whether or not late graduates should be counted as graduates, we should be looking into incentives to keep all students in school until they earn a high school diploma. Graduating on time is the best outcome for students. But it’s also true that students are better off graduating late than never.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Why Not Count Them All?

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