The U.S. Department of Education last week released high school graduation rates for the 2010-11 school year for 47 states, the District of Columbia, and other jurisdictions that were for the first time calculated using a common method.
The reported rates vary widely by state. Iowa leads the way, reporting an 88 percent overall graduation rate, while at the other end of the scale, 59 percent of 9th graders graduated within four years in the District of Columbia.
Most states also reported large differences between the graduation rates of white students and those for students of color and other special populations. African-American students in every state, and Latino students in every state except Maine, graduated at lower-than-average rates for their states.
The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate calculates the percent of students entering 9th grade who graduate four years later. While states have tracked high school graduation rates for years, they used different formulas. States were required to report the same adjusted cohort rate by a 2008 regulation that establishes the common calculation method and requires states to use it as a measure of schools’ performance. Many states have been preparing for a potential public relations challenge since then.
|BUREAU OF INDIAN EDUCATION||61|
|DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA||59|
Note: Rates not yet available for some states.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
The cohort rate is considered to be a more accurate measure of schools’ successes than other formulas, and in some states, including Oregon and Alabama, the new numbers look markedly lower than rates calculated using other formulas. Calculating the cohort rate requires four years of student-level data, which necessitates the use of education data systems that many states have only recently put into place. For that reason, Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico filed extensions and reported graduation rates calculated by older formulas for 2010-11.
In a Nov. 26 letter to chief state school officers, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the department will hold states to the new graduation-rate reporting requirements. An attachment to the letter compiled all states’ graduation-rate targets set either by the No Child Left Behind Act or through states’ waivers. Those targets range from 80 percent in Kansas to 100 percent in Oklahoma.
Mr. Duncan’s letter counters concerns from several advocacy organizations. They are worried that some states that have received waivers from requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act will not use the new formula to hold schools accountable for improving their graduation rates.
Federal education officials said there is no plan to calculate a national rate using the adjusted cohort-rate formula and the states’ numbers are not vetted by the federal Education Department.
The switch to a common calculation method was heralded as a step toward being able to compare outcomes nationwide and sharing lessons from state to state. Aimee Rogstad Guidera, the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, said it was “incredible” that, since 2005, when members of the National Governors Association agreed that states should calculate a uniform graduation rate, “every state has built a data system that allows it to calculate this rate ... that allows us to see what’s happening and have some sort of comparability.”
Being able to compare allows states to learn from one another, said Patte Barthe, the director of the Center for Public Education at the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “Maybe other states are producing better results, and if so, what can we learn from that?” she said.
There are still some discrepancies in states’ formulas, however. States may or may not include home-schoolers in their overall numbers, for example. Some states include students who receive General Educational Development certificates, or GEDs, as graduates, said Amanda Karhuse, the director of government relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals. The Bureau of Indian Education counts all its students as Native American even when they’re not, and only California calculates a rate for Filipino students, according to the Education Department.
Even so, “it’s an achievement to have this data,” said Phillip D.C. Lovell, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education. “This snapshot gives a much clearer picture as to how students are doing.”
Mr. Lovell said that it was worth noting that a number of states graduated more than 80 percent of students, but that “there’s enough underperformance that we can’t rest.”
The large achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups align with previous graduation-rate calculations.
The share of English-language learners and students with disabilities graduating on time varies even more widely from state to state. In Arizona, only 25 percent of English-learners graduated in four years, while South Dakota graduated 82 percent of such students. Only 29 percent of Louisiana’s children with disabilities graduated on time; in Arkansas, the proportion was 75 percent.
Students in both of those groups sometimes benefit from extra years in school, but state-level policies can also affect graduation rates, said Patricia Gándana, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Ms. Rogstad Guidera said the new numbers are useful for states looking to improve graduation rates. “By having that comparability,” she said, “it leads people to a conversation we need to be having.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as First for States: Same Graduation Formula