The U.S. Department of Education’s recent regulations setting a standard calculation for high school graduation rates appear to have pleased disability-group advocates, who were concerned that a loose standard could mean fewer opportunities for students with disabilities to earn a regular diploma.
The regulations, published in the Federal Register Oct. 29, will be one of the last changes the Bush administration makes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Among other revisions, the department attempted to bring clarity to the way high school graduation rates are calculated. Though graduation rates must be reported under the NCLB law, many states had slightly different ways of tracking their performance in that area.
The changes will require districts to report their graduation rate as the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular diploma, divided by the number of students who entered four years earlier. Adjustments can be made for students who leave the district for certain reasons, such as transfers.
By the 2011-12 school year, states must use this method as one of the measures for determining whether a high school has made adequate yearly progress. States must also break down graduation rates by subgroup, such as minority students and students with disabilities.
The new calculation reflects what governors had committed to use in 2005, in an agreement organized by the National Governors Association.
But concern over graduation rates and students with disabilities arose because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that students covered under that law have the right to stay in school until age 22.
The Education Department will allow schools to report a separate graduation rate that takes into account students who graduate in more than four years, but that “extended year” rate will not replace the main calculation: how many students graduate in four years with a regular diploma.
Keeping up Pressure
Advocates were worried that too many students with disabilities could be left out of the calculations because of the idea. Only a small proportion of students with disabilities “age out” in school, said Candace Cortiella, the director of the Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Marshall, Va.
“We do want there to be a focus on getting kids with [individualized education programs] out in four years,” Ms. Cortiella said. “The pressing need is to focus on getting kids graduated and to make some new inroads on the dropout rate.”
Ricki Sabia, the associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society’s policy center in Washington, said she was pleased that the department decided not to use a proposal floating around Capitol Hill that would have allowed students who earn alternative diplomas to be counted as graduates.
Students with significant cognitive disabilities sometimes receive “certificates of completion” or “IEP diplomas” instead of regular diplomas that demonstrate academic achievement.
If such students could be counted as high school graduates, it might be an incentive to direct students onto an easier path to high school completion, Ms. Sabia said, rather than work to improve their academic skills.
“You don’t want to be giving too much leeway with that,” she said.
In comments that accompanied the new regulations, the Education Department explained that states can choose to report separately the students who receive alternative diplomas. Also, states are not required to aim for a 100 percent graduation rate, in recognition that some students will not be able to earn a regular diploma.
Still, some draft proposals for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law would allow students who earn alternative diplomas to be counted as high school graduates. Ms. Sabia said her group would work to make sure such language would not reappear once the education law comes up for reauthorization.
Congress had been scheduled to reauthorize the nearly 7-year-old law, but could not reach an agreement on revisions. Changes to the legislation are expected to be taken up by the new Congress that will be sworn in next January.
Some education groups expressed concern that the rules represent overreaching on the part of the department.
But Bob Wise, the former West Virginia governor who is now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that advocates reform of the nation’s high schools, supports the regulations and said rather than an overreach, they’re a long-delayed improvement.
“This is eight years overdue. This should have been done in the first implementation of NCLB,” Mr. Wise said. “What the secretary did was what most people acknowledged needed to be done.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Advocates for Disabled Students Cheer Graduation Rule