A recent move by Congress has quietly opened a loophole that could allow states to avoid publicly identifying some of their high school “dropout factories” for intervention and support.
It happened last month when Congress voted to dissolve accountability regulations written by the Obama administration for the Every Student Succeeds Act. With his signature, President Donald Trump finalized that move March 28.
When lawmakers dumped the accountability rules, they eliminated a key clarification of a fuzzy portion of the underlying law: It spelled out exactly how states must calculate their high schools’ graduation rates to see which ones need “comprehensive support.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act says that states must identify for comprehensive support “all public high schools in the state failing to graduate one-third or more of their students.” It is an attempt to identify and support schools with high dropout rates.
But the way ESSA is written could allow states to use graduation-rate calculations that inflate the numbers, such as those that include students who finish in five or six years, or those who receive GEDs instead of diplomas.
Under former President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education closed that loophole when it created regulations for the law. The rules specified that when states identify their high schools with low-graduation rates, they must use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, which tracks the proportion of each freshman class that earns regular diplomas four years later.
With those rules now set aside, states could theoretically use other kinds of graduation-rate calculations that identify fewer schools for improvement.
“That’s not OK, and it’s a problem,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group that focuses on high school issues. “I hope states don’t look at this as an opportunity to game the system.”
New Guidance Allows Leeway
Other sections of ESSA that pertain to graduation rates are clear: They require states to use the four-year cohort rate as an indicator in their accountability systems, and in calculating long-term and interim goals. But no such specificity exists in the section about identifying high schools for improvement.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify high schools with low graduation rates for “comprehensive support.” Based on 2014 data, 15 states would have more than 50 schools that graduate less than 67 percent of their students in four years. Seven of those states would have more than 100 such schools.
Source: “Building a Grad Nation” 2016, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University
It also doesn’t exist in the guidance that the Trump administration issued to replace the accountability regulations.
Like ESSA itself, the new guidance says states must use the four-year adjusted-cohort graduation calculation as an indicator in their accountability systems and in setting goals.
But the section about identifying high schools for support says only that schools must “describe” their “methodology” for identifying all high schools “failing to graduate one-third or more of their students.”
“There was great clarity about the grad rate requirements under the [Obama accountability] regulations, but this is an area where it isn’t as clear now,” said Bethany Little, a principal at EducationCounsel, a consulting firm that is advising states and districts on ESSA implementation.
“People are asking questions about what they can do now. It’s causing confusion.”
Some activists who focus on high school issues don’t anticipate that states will lower the bar in identifying schools with high dropout rates.
Amanda Karhuse, the director of advocacy for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said states are so accustomed to using the four-year-cohort method for their accountability systems—something required by regulations issued in 2008, at the request of the nation’s governors—that she doesn’t think it’s likely they’ll suddenly use a different calculation for the purpose of identifying schools for support.
Anne Hyslop, who worked on the Obama accountability regulations as an Education Department staffer, said there’s risk in identifying too many schools for comprehensive support.
Not all states will have long lists of schools that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students in four years. But in those that do, states “will be very hard-pressed to have the capacity to serve all those schools,” said Hyslop, who is now a senior associate for policy and advocacy at Chiefs for Change.
While inaction is never acceptable when students attend schools with high dropout rates, “the question is, what is our capacity to support the schools identified for improvement? That’s what states will have to think about,” she said.
A Far-Reaching Problem
A 2016 report on high school graduation patterns, called “Building a Grad Nation,” calculated that of the nation’s high schools enrolling 100 or more students, 2,397 have four-year graduation rates of 67 percent or less. (ESSA requires states to report graduation rates of high schools of that size or larger.)
Robert Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins University researcher who led that study, said it’s “definitely a potential concern” that setting aside the ESSA accountability regulations could allow states to use more-permissive calculations to identify their low-graduation-rate schools.
“What it opens the door to is states deciding that high school is too late, that they’d rather take the Title I money for school improvement and put it in the early grades,” he said. “And if you want to do that, you’d want to identify fewer high schools [for improvement].”
But he’s hoping that the prospect of getting federal money to improve schools, without the restrictions of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program, will encourage states to use the four-year graduation rate when they decide which high schools need support.
A Look at States’ Plans’
More detail on how states will identify their schools with high dropout rates will emerge as they file their ESSA plans, which are due either this month or in September. According to “Building a Grad Nation,” 22 states would have lists of 20 or fewer low-grad-rate schools.
But seven states would have 100 or more high schools on the list of those needing comprehensive improvement. Contacted by Education Week, most of those states said they are still drafting their plans and couldn’t yet say how they’ll calculate their high schools’ graduation rates to decide the issue of comprehensive support.
But Arizona’s and Ohio’s draft plans make it clear they’ll use the four-year cohort rate.
“I don’t think the notion of a shortcut was anything that crossed our minds,” said Chris Woolard, the senior director for accountability and continuous improvement in Ohio’s education agency.
Woolard said it makes no sense to have an accountability system based on one set of metrics, and an improvement system based on another. “We’re trying to move away from a system that’s compliance-focused to one that’s support-focused.”
John White, the superintendent of schools in Louisiana, said he doesn’t think states need the accountability regulations to deal effectively with identifying high schools with low graduation rates. His state is taking a different tack: It will provide comprehensive support to any school that earns D or F grades in its accountability system.
Under that system, White said, it won’t be possible for any school with a four-year cohort graduation rate of less than two-thirds to be avoid being identified as needing support.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as States Get More Leeway on Identifying ‘Dropout Factories’