College & Workforce Readiness

Graduation Rates Latest NCLB Waiver Flash Point

Some say flexibility on NCLB could dilute accountability
By Michele McNeil — October 30, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

A growing chorus of education policy advocates is urging the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen graduation-rate accountability in states that have earned waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In separate letters last month to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a group of 36 civil rights, business, and education policy groups, along with U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., say they are concerned that many states’ approved flexibility plans violate the spirit—if not the letter—of 2008 regulations that require all states to calculate the graduation rate in the same way and make those rates an important factor in high school accountability.

What’s more, those groups and Rep. Miller warn that in many states, graduation rates—especially for groups of at-risk students—are such a minor part of the new accountability systems that getting students to successfully finish high school may take a back seat to other factors, such as performance on tests.

An Education Week review of the 35 approved waiver applications shows approaches to graduation-rate accountability vary significantly.

• Two states use the number of students that earn General Educational Development certificates, or GEDs, as part of their accountability system. In South Dakota, 12.5 percent of a school’s grade is based on high school completion, which includes those earning a GED diploma. Louisiana awards a small number of points to schools for the GED certificates their students earn.

Calculating Completion

A number of states that have received waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are using graduation rates in different ways as part of their accountability systems. A sampling:

Allows schools to use a four-, five-, six-, or seven-year graduation rate—whichever is highest—in the state’s new performance framework. Graduation rates for all students is one of four college- and career-readiness indicators that in total make up 35 percent of a school’s grade.

Twenty-five percent of a school’s grade is based on the four-year graduation rate, and 25 percent is based on a “graduation index” that awards points for students who get advanced diplomas but also who earn GEDs.

Graduation rates will account for 16.7 percent of a school’s total score; 10 percent of the state’s top-to-bottom ranking of schools that determine certain interventions. Schools will be able to use the highest of a four-, five-, or six-year rate once enough years are available to make those calculations.

Schools that are not already “priority” or “focus” schools will have to meet the 80 percent statewide graduation goal or make progress toward those goals, based on a four- or five-year graduation rate. If at least one student subgroup in a school does not meet those targets, the school will qualify for interventions as a “local assistance-plan school.”

A school’s four-year graduation rate makes up 12.5 percent of a school’s grade and a high school “completer” rate that includes students who earn GED certificates makes up 12.5 percent.

Source: Approved Waiver Applications

• Several states allow schools to take credit in their grading systems for students who take longer than four or five years to graduate. Colorado, for example, allows for a seven-year graduation rate.

• The weight that states afford to graduation rates in their accountability systems varies greatly. In Michigan’s system, graduation rates are worth just 10 percent in the state’s top-to-bottom ranking of schools; in Kentucky, rates are worth 20 percent of a school’s grade; and Nevada, 30 percent.

“An erosion of the bipartisan progress made in the area of high school graduation-rate accountability is an unacceptable byproduct of this [waiver] policy,” states the Sept. 21 letter from the business, civil rights, and education groups, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, and the National School Boards Association.

In his letter from the same day to Secretary Duncan, Mr. Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, wrote: “Of most immediate concern are those new state accountability systems approved by [the Education Department] that I believe undermine the role of graduation rates in determining school performance, are not supported by research or best practice, and erode the recent progress states have made on improving graduation rates.”

Education Department officials had no additional comment on the graduation-rate issue and pointed to a spokesman’s statement from last month in response to Mr. Miller’s letter. “We will vigilantly monitor states to make sure their kids are getting over the bar and graduating them,” said department press secretary Justin Hamilton at that time.

Four Years and Beyond

The concern over graduation rates is the latest in a series of sharp critiques by advocacy groups raising alarms about the waivers. Already, several states are defending their new accountability systems because, as the federal rules permit, they are setting different school performance benchmarks by race and ethnicity.

The waivers under the NCLB law allow states the freedom to design their own differentiated accountability systems that do not revolve around the original goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students in math and reading by the end of the 2013-14 school year. In exchange for having significant parts of the original law waived, states have to commit to intervening in the 15 percent of the lowest-performing schools, focus on closing achievement gaps, and implement teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that are based in part on student performance.

The flexibility offered to states, which comes as Congress remains overdue in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the current version, did not waive the 2008 graduation-rate regulations.

According to the regulations put in place by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served in the George W. Bush administration, the graduation rate is defined as the number of students who finish high school with a regular diploma within four years. The regulations allow for the addition of an extended-year graduation rate so schools could receive credit for getting students over the finish line in more than four years. But generally, the department also required states to set more ambitious goals for those extended-year rates. And most states didn’t exceed a five-year rate anyway, policy advocates say.

In addition, the regulations made graduation rates a crucial factor in accountability. Schools had to meet their state’s graduation goal for all students and subgroups of at-risk students, or make improvement, in order to make adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law.

“What’s most concerning is the number of states and the variety of ways in which graduation-rate accountability is being implemented that is different from graduation-rate accountability as envisioned under the 2008 regulations,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of federal advocacy for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which works on high school issues and signed on to the September letter. “The states would only have to make, in most instances, modest modifications to their accountability systems to fix these graduation-rate problems. Little changes could have a big impact.”

What the Plans Show

The waiver plans show that states are, for the most part, reporting their four-year graduation rate as required—but that in many cases, these graduation rates may be watered down by other factors, such as when states use extended-year rates or introduce separate measures that allow schools to get credit for GED recipients.

In Colorado’s case, college- and career-readiness indicators count for 35 percent of a high school’s grade, and graduation rates are a part of that broader indicator. The state includes schools’ and districts’ four-year graduation rates, but also counts five-, six-, and seven-year graduation rates in its accountability system.

“It’s not just about giving credit, but making sure we’ve created an accountability system that incentivizes schools and districts to ensure students are postsecondary and workforce ready, regardless of the time they need to get there,” said Colorado department of education spokeswoman Megan McDermott. “We don’t want an accountability system that says, ‘If you can’t do it in four years, then it doesn’t count.’"In the more than a dozen states that have adopted letter grading or point systems for evaluating schools, graduation rates count for less than a third of a school’s grade.

Michigan, in its waiver application, explained the 10 percent weight it gives to graduation rates this way: “Although graduation rate is an important indicator, [the state] feels that placing too much emphasis on graduation incentivizes schools and districts to graduate students who are not proficient, and therefore not considered career- and college-ready.”

When states submitted their initial waiver applications, outside peer reviewers found significant problems with many of the states’ graduation-rate accountability plans.

The Education Department, however, didn’t always adhere to the reviewers’ suggestions.

In South Dakota, for instance, the peer reviewers recommended that the state forgo using a “completer” rate that included those who earned a GED diploma or another certificate of completion (such as those who fulfilled the requirements of an Individual Education Plan). South Dakota made some changes, but the department allowed the state to keep its completer rate and include only GED certificates.

And in Michigan, although peer reviewers were concerned about the low weight given to graduation rates, the department allowed the state to keep the weighting at 10 percent in one part of its accountability system, but the state agreed to make the rates worth 16.7 percent in another part of its accountability system.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as Graduation Rates Latest Waiver Flash Point


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.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
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.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness The Botched FAFSA Rollout Leaves Students in Limbo
Some students wonder if their college dreams will survive.
6 min read
Ashnaelle Bijoux poses on campus, Saturday, April 27, 2024, at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Conn. Bijoux, a senior at NFA, has been unable to complete the FAFSA form due to a glitch with the form. Without the form and the financial aid it brings, Bijoux won't be able to pursue her goal of going to Southern Connecticut State University to become a therapist.
Ashnaelle Bijoux poses on campus, Saturday, April 27, 2024, at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Conn. Bijoux, a senior at NFA, has been unable to complete the FAFSA form due to a glitch with the form. Without the form and the financial aid it brings, Bijoux won't be able to pursue her goal of going to Southern Connecticut State University to become a therapist.
Jessica Hill/AP
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says New Data Paint Bleak Picture of Students' Post High School Outcomes
Students are taking much longer to complete credentials after high school than programs plan.
2 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students
A unique collaboration between a Virginia school district and two television actors allows students to gain real-life filmmaking experience.
6 min read
Bethel High School films a production of Fear the Fog at Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023.
Students from Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., film "Fear the Fog"<i> </i>at Virginia's Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023. Students wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film through a partnership between their district, Hampton City Schools, and two television actors that's designed to give them applied, entertainment industry experience.
Courtesy of Hampton City Schools
College & Workforce Readiness A FAFSA Calculation Error Could Delay College Aid Applications—Again
It's the latest blunder to upend the "Better FAFSA," as it was branded by the Education Department.
2 min read
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education.
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stands in the university's library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. He's one of thousands of existing and incoming college students affected by a problem-plagued rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid. A series of delays and errors is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions.
Hans Pennink/AP