States to Face Uniform Rules on Grad Data

Spellings to propose formula; extent of mandates unclear
By David J. Hoff — April 01, 2008 6 min read
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Plans by the Bush administration to set a uniform way for states to calculate and report their graduation rates could make it harder for high schools to avoid accountability measures under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In the U.S. Department of Education’s latest move to refine the implementation of the NCLB law, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last week she would propose rules that would “ensure that all states use the same formula to calculate how many students graduate from high school on time.”

“In addition, we will make this data public so that people nationwide can compare how students of every race, background, and income level are performing,” Ms. Spellings said in a speech here that left many questions about the forthcoming policy unanswered.

Federal action is needed, she said, because states often publish graduation-rate data that fail to accurately count all students who drop out of school.

“It’s the start of something good, and it’s long overdue,” said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, said in response to the announcement. “At least we’re beginning to get the truth out there.”

But the secretary didn’t explain which formula she would propose for states to use, nor did she say whether high schools and school districts would be held accountable for their graduation rates for every subgroup of students.

Ms. Spellings also didn’t say whether the Education Department would require states to set ambitious targets for improving graduation rates. Under plans previously approved by the department, most states’ rules allow high schools and school districts to escape the NCLB law’s accountability measures even though they make little or no progress in improving graduation rates, said Bethany Little, the vice president for policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington advocacy group for high school improvement.

A uniform graduation-rate formula “is so desperately needed,” Ms. Little said. “But it’s not enough.”

The department plans to put forth a formal proposal by the end of April, Ms. Spellings said.

Graduation Momentum

Secretary Spellings announced her intentions at an event where the America’s Promise Alliance announced it would sponsor “summit” meetings in 50 states and 50 big cities to address their dropout problems. The Washington- based group, which was founded by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and is led by his wife, Alma J. Powell, is the latest of several efforts aimed at increasing the number of students who graduate from high school.

Researchers estimate that 70 percent of students graduate four years after starting high school. Slightly more than half of African- Americans and Hispanics graduate on time, the research suggests.

Secretary Spellings’ proposal follows an earlier national initiative to improve the quality of data on dropouts and graduates. Three years ago, all of the nation’s governors agreed to use the same formula to calculate and report graduation rates, under an agreement sponsored by the National Governors Association. (“Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates,” July 27, 2005).

Many states are still building the data systems they need to track individual students to determine whether they have dropped out or transferred to other schools. States continue to publish graduation data using a variety of methods that the federal Education Department has approved in their plans to comply with the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s good news, but there’s a bit of concern about it being a national mandate,” Christopher Cashman, a spokesman for the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, said of Ms. Spellings’ announcement. “This is something governors have done voluntarily.”

The NGA is working to ensure that governors who have taken office since 2005 agree to the agreement’s terms, Mr. Cashman said.

In a brief interview after her April 1 speech, Ms. Spellings declined to specify whether the rules she plans to propose would require states to use the same formula that the governors endorsed.

“I don’t think people will be surprised by the approach that we take,” the secretary said, saying that the White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing her proposal. After the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register later this month, Ms. Spellings expects that they will become final by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year.

The secretary didn’t clarify whether the proposed rules would require high schools to meet graduation- rate goals for every student population that must make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind law. Now, schools must break out test-score data by racial and ethnic group, family income level, and categories such as students with disabilities and English-language learners.

Schools and districts must meet achievement targets in each subgroup based on a trajectory that would bring all students to proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Students are tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

High schools also must meet graduation-rate goals to make AYP, but they don’t have to meet goals in every subgroup of students.

Ms. Spellings’ graduation-rate proposal is her latest effort to use executive authority to modify the administration of the NCLB law, which is considered one of the Bush administration’s most significant domestic initiatives.

In December, Ms. Spellings said she would approve all qualifying states’ plans to determine schools’ and districts’ accountability status based on the growth in students’ test scores. Last month, she said she would approve as many as 10 states’ plans to differentiate the consequences schools face under the law, depending on how far the schools are from meeting their AYP goals. (“‘Growth’ Pilot Now Open to All States,” Dec 12, 2007).

‘Piecemeal Changes’

To accomplish those changes, the secretary is relying on a provision of the NCLB statute that gives her broad power to waive sections of the law to improve its implementation, said Samara Yudof, Ms. Spellings’ press secretary.

One congressional leader said he agreed that the federal government should establish a single method for calculating a graduation rate. But he added that the NCLB law needs more thorough revisions than the Bush administration can accomplish through regulatory actions.

“It is unfortunate that the Bush administration rejected an opportunity last year to work with Congress in a bipartisan way on comprehensive reforms to the No Child Left Behind law,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement, “and has instead chosen to make piecemeal changes to a law that educators and parents know is in need of significant improvement.”

The law is up for reauthorization in Congress, but Rep. Miller has said it would be difficult for lawmakers to complete the process before President Bush leaves office next January.

The administrative changes are “kind of a shadow reauthorization through consensus-driven fiat,” said Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst for Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

The approach also appears to be a strategic decision by the administration to resist dramatic changes to the NCLB law that the Democratic-controlled Congress might make, Mr. Carey added.

“They’d rather stick with what they’ve got than deal with some wholesale retrenchment,” he said.

Although the Education Department is providing waivers for NCLB mandates that may exceed what the law allows, Mr. Carey said, he believes it has chosen to address problems that most policy experts agree need to be addressed.

Staff Writer Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as States to Face Uniform Rules on Grad Data


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