Special Report

States Notch Slow, Steady Progress Toward Consistent Graduation Goals

By Sterling C. Lloyd — May 30, 2008 9 min read
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What does it take to graduate from high school in 2008? A casual glance at newspaper headlines across the country reveals the wide range of issues that state policymakers consider when addressing that question. As they set graduation requirements, political leaders and educators weigh such factors as the potential impact of graduation requirements on dropout rates, whether coursetaking requirements adequately prepare students to meet the expectations of postsecondary institutions and the workplace, and the balance between state authority and traditions of local control.

To explore an array of policies related to high school graduation, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center surveyed the states and the District of Columbia in fall 2007. Relying mostly on data from that survey, Diplomas Count 2008 examines 18 key indicators across three general categories of state policy: definitions of college and work readiness, high school completion credentials, and exit exams.

The 50-state review conducted for Diplomas Count shows substantial variation for each of those policy areas.

We also have updated our analysis of public high school graduation rates using the research center’s Cumulative Promotion Index, or CPI, and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

Results for the class of 2005, the most recent year available, show a national graduation rate of 70.6 percent, an increase of about half a percentage point over the prior year. The EPE Research Center estimates that 1.23 million high school students will fail to graduate in the class of 2008.

Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Vermont lead the nation, with graduation rates exceeding 80 percent. At the other end of the range, fewer than half of students graduate with a diploma in Nevada. Graduation rates also fall well below the national average for historically disadvantaged minority groups, particularly minority males.

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Lowest to Highest Graduation Rates in the Nation’s 50 Largest Districts PDFExcel
Projection of Graduates and Non-Graduates—Class of 2008 PDFExcel
Graduation Policies—Class of 2008 PDF

For the first time, the EPE Research Center has calculated high school graduation rates for each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and the District of Columbia, in the hope of helping lawmakers better understand the challenges facing their constituents. (See Map: A Representative’s View of High School Graduation )

Those graduation rates range from 24.5 percent in New York state’s 7th Congressional District to 92.6 percent in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District. Detailed graduation data, from national statistics down to school-level results, are available online through EdWeek Maps at maps.edweek.org.

Eye on Expectations

Across the nation, the question of high school students’ readiness for college and work has appeared on the radar screens of legislators and governors.

That interest has been spurred, in some cases, by such multistate initiatives as the American Diploma Project and the National Governors Association’s Honor States Grant Program, as well as states’ own P-16 councils. Such bodies assemble diverse stakeholders concerned with preschool through college education.

The upshot is that a majority of states have been evaluating the academic rigor required to earn a high school diploma, as well as the alignment between those expectations and the skills and knowledge needed for success in college and the workplace.

But states are at different points in that evaluation process.

Traditionally, states established the number of course credits and other basic requirements for earning a diploma. More recently, many states have given extra scrutiny to the level of coursetaking, academic skills, and other traits students need to be prepared for life after high school.

To learn more about those efforts to specify what high school graduates should know and be able to do, we asked each state department of education to indicate whether it has established formal, statewide definitions of college and work readiness.

This year, 15 states have completed definitions of college readiness, an increase from 11 in 2007. Another 12 states are in the process of doing so.

Defining Readiness

The EPE Research Center reviewed states’ criteria for college readiness and identified four major categories: courses, skills, standards, and tests.

How States Stack Up

The nation’s high school class of 2005 posted a graduation rate of 70.6 percent, up about half a percentage point from the year before.

Graduation rates vary widely from place to place. In New York’s 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, only 24.5 percent of students in the class of 2005 earned a diploma. In Northern New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, home to several suburban counties, 92.6 percent of students graduated.

The typical student in the class of 2008 needed 20.6 credits to graduate. That number varies by state, however: California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming require just 13 credits for a diploma; Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia mandate 24.

Almost half the states—23 in the 2007 survey—required high school exit exams for the class of 2008, and three more planned to do so for future graduates.

Fifteen states defined college readiness in 2008, and 26 defined what it means to be ready for the work world.

Definitions in the “courses” category generally include recommended or required college-preparatory curricula, while those in the “skills” category typically involve narrative descriptions of the competencies and attributes needed to be college-ready.

States also communicate readiness expectations by establishing academic-content standards linked to postsecondary expectations and by identifying the test scores—commonly on such national college-entrance exams as the ACT or the SAT—deemed necessary for postsecondary education.

States with college-readiness definitions currently in place were asked to indicate which of those four major approaches are used by their K-12 education systems.

Twelve of the 15 states with definitions provide lists of high school courses students should take to be prepared for college.

Conveying readiness expectations through academic-content standards is also relatively common, with 12 states incorporating this approach into their definitions. By contrast, narrative descriptions of the skills needed for collegiate success are used by just four states.

Twenty-six states now define work readiness, compared with 21 a year ago. Eight additional states are developing a work-readiness definition.

Among states with definitions in place, 21 explain work-readiness expectations, at least in part, through academic-content standards, which typically are tied to career and technical education programs. Definitions in six states identify the test scores that students should achieve to be considered ready for the workplace, while six states provide lists of essential courses.

Alignment Efforts

Definitions of college and work readiness are examples of a growing body of state policies intended to remedy a historical disconnect between K-12 schooling and other educational institutions. With such steps, states are trying to connect different sectors, align expectations from preschool through college, and create more seamless education systems.

Changes Afoot

In April of this year, the U.S. Department of Education proposed changing the Title I regulations governing the methods states can use to calculate graduation rates under the No Child Left Behind Act as well as the ways in which those rates factor into accountability decisions under the federal law. Those changes were prompted in part by concerns about the lack of uniformity and accuracy of state-reported statistics. In all but one instance, the states’ officially reported rates for the class of 2005 are higher than those computed by the EPE Research Center using the Cumulative Promotion Index. At its widest, that disparity exceeds 30 percentage points. These discrepancies stem primarily from the states’ formulas. A review of state accountability plans shows that most states use a leaver-rate calculation, a method that tends to produce inflated results because it relies heavily on undercounted dropout data.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008. State-reported graduation rates for the class of 2005 were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by the states in their Consolidated State Performance Reports under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Our review shows that states are using different strategies to improve cross-sector alignment in specific policy areas. State P-16 (or P-20) councils, which bring together representatives from education, state government, and other stakeholders to coordinate policy, are one tool states are increasingly using to better integrate historically balkanized educational decisionmaking.

To shed light on the role of such councils in formulating alignment policies, this year’s Diplomas Count includes a state-by-state table showing the initiatives the councils are in the process of implementing and the policy changes that have resulted so far.

Data collected by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States describe the councils’ involvement in developing policies to align high school standards and assessments with postsecondary expectations, create longitudinal P-16 databases, increase high school graduation requirements, and pursue other goals.

The information that P-16 and P-20 councils provide to the public is one indicator of the level of transparency and accountability for their work. To investigate this aspect of the councils’ activity, the EPE Research Center collected data on the types of online information such councils make readily available.

Courses and Credentials

The coursetaking required to earn a standard high school diploma is a fundamental aspect of graduation policy.

Class of 2008: 1.23 Million Students Will Fail to Graduate

Diplomas Count uses the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method to measure high school graduation rates as the percent of 9th graders who will earn a diploma four years later.

The center can project the expected numbers of graduates and nongraduates for the class of 2008 by multiplying the CPI value for 2004-05 by the number of 9th grade students enrolled that year. Detailed analysis show that most of the students lost from the class of 2008 are African-American and Latino.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008

According to data from the ECS, the total number of credits that students in the class of 2008 must earn to graduate ranges from 13 in California, Wisconsin, and Wyoming to 24 in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Nationally, the typical student must complete 20.6 credits, about the same as last year. Five states—Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—leave most decisions about course credits up to local districts.

States offer a variety of high school completion credentials, ranging from advanced diplomas to certificates of completion. Such credentials signal to postsecondary education institutions and employers the standards that students have met upon exiting the public school system.

The EPE Research Center’s review of those credentials reveals little change from a year ago, suggesting relative stability in this area of state policy.

As an incentive for students to take more-rigorous courses and pursue other academic accomplishments, 24 states award such advanced credentials as honors diplomas or other types of formal recognition for above-average performance. The same number of states offered advanced credentials this year and last.

All 21 states with statewide criteria award advanced credentials for achievement in core academic subjects. Eight of those states also recognize accomplishments in a career or technical program. Advanced or more-rigorous coursetaking is the most common requirement for advanced credentials. Assessment results and grade point average are also frequently used criteria.

For students who do not meet the requirements for a standard diploma, especially those with disabilities, an alternative credential may be available. Twenty-seven states offer some form of recognition to students who meet specified requirements but fall short of qualifying for the standard diploma. Most of those states offer such recognition to students with disabilities, while a lesser number provide certificates for students who fail exit exams.

An industry-recognized certificate or license is another credential that employers may use to evaluate graduates’ level of preparedness. Forty states offer high school students a pathway to such a credential.

As of our fall 2007 survey, 23 states required exit exams for the class of 2008, and three states—Arkansas, Maryland, and Oklahoma—planned to do so for future graduating classes.

The number of states financing remediation for students failing exit exams has grown from 12 to 14 since last year. In that time, the number of states offering an appeals process or an alternative route to a diploma for students failing exit exams grew from 16 to 20.

While some basic aspects of graduation policy—such as the number of course credits required for a standard diploma—have not changed significantly since last year, states are stepping up action on the readiness agenda.

More states have now defined college and work readiness, and a considerable number of others are in the process of doing so. Through those efforts, states seek to produce more high school graduates who are prepared for the demands of college and work.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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