College & Workforce Readiness

High School Activists to Betsy DeVos: Keep a Close Eye on Grad Rate ‘Loophole’

By Catherine Gewertz — April 10, 2017 2 min read
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Activists who monitor the high school space are urging U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to keep a close watch on a loophole in federal law that could allow states to identify fewer high school “dropout factories” for support.

In a letter issued Monday, the four organizations that lead the GradNation initiative urge DeVos to ensure that states use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate—that’s a wonky way of saying the percentage of freshmen who graduate with regular diplomas four years later—when they identify high schools with low graduation rates.

The request comes as states begin to submit their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. In those plans, states must include descriptions of how they’ll identify and support high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students.

As we reported in a story last week, the section of ESSA that deals with identifying and supporting low-grad-rate schools was a bit unclear. It didn’t specify what on-time graduation meant (graduating in four years, for instance). Regulations issued by President Barack Obama’s administration cleared that up: They specified that states must identify and provide comprehensive support to high schools that failed to graduate two-thirds of their students with regular diplomas in four years.

But when Congress and the Trump administration dumped those regulations, that meant states could, technically, rely on the language in ESSA—unclear as it might be—in deciding how to identify low-grad-rate high schools. The Trump administration issued ESSA guidance, but all it said on this topic was that states must describe their methodology for identifying and supporting high schools with low graduation rates.

That situation worried some activists, who feared states might do things like include GED-earners as “graduates,” thereby shortening their lists of troubled high schools in need of support.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center are the groups that sent recommendations to DeVos Monday. They’re the ones who’ve been leading the GradNation campaign, which aims to get the national graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. (It’s currently at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, a 12-point gain since 2001).

In addition to ensuring that states use the four-year-cohort graduation rate when they identify schools in need of support, the four groups urged DeVos to make sure that all high schools, including alternative, charter, and virtual schools, are included in state accountability and improvement plans. (Those sectors have been identified as sources of particularly low graduation rates.)

The groups also want DeVos to make it clear to states that they don’t need to wait to offer support for schools until they fall short of the two-thirds graduation rate for “comprehensive” support. “Targeted” support is available when subgroups of students fail to meet—or are not on track to meet—even one state-set goal, the letter notes.

“This clarification is critical because data suggests that low subgroup performance will be masked if performance on multiple indicators is combined to identify consistently underperforming students,” the letter says. “Many high schools have high proficiency rates but low graduation rates. Many other high schools have high graduation rates but low proficiency rates.”

We’ve asked the Education Department to provide a response to the GradNation groups’ letter. We’ll update this post when/if we receive one.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.