College & Workforce Readiness

States Move Unevenly Toward Common Graduation-Rate Data

By Michele McNeil — August 07, 2006 3 min read
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A year after the nation’s governors pledged to use a common formula to calculate graduation rates, 39 states are compiling the necessary data and are preparing within four years to report the most accurate account yet of high school completion.

But according to a progress report released today at the National Governors Association annual meeting here, several states have a long way to go, and still others are not on board to join the compact.

North Dakota and South Dakota have “no plans” to report their high school graduation rate using the agreed-upon formula, the report concludes. Other states, such as Missouri, aren’t planning to report their new rates until 2012 or later. Governors of all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, signed the one-page “Graduation Counts Compact” after it was unveiled at last year’s NGA meeting in Iowa. (“Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates,” July 27, 2005.)

The goal is to replace the hodgepodge of graduation-rate formulas, which often lead to inflated high school completion rates, with a uniform, truer, and more comparable picture of how many students are graduating and how many are dropping out. That’s a difficult task because it generally requires assigning unique identifying numbers to all students and tracking their individual progress through school.

Besides the Dakotas, several states have been slow to implement the plan. Missouri hasn’t even begun to collect data on 9th graders because its data system isn’t ready, and won’t be until at least 2008. Idaho intends to switch to using the uniform formula, and is planning to build a new data system, but hasn’t set a timeline for doing so.

Still other states are trying to use the formula, but are not fixing key discrepancies. Illinois, for example, includes in its rate students who take longer than four years to graduate, according to the report. A crucial component of the NGA compact rate is using a four-year timeframe for graduates who obtain a high school diploma. Special education and limited-English-proficient students can be put in a separate category to allow them more time to graduate.

At the same time, 13 states are already publicly reporting the compact graduation rates or intend to do so this year, according to the report by the NGA’s Center for Best Practices. They are Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. In addition, Maryland became the first state to put the new graduation-rate formula into law.

“By 2008, we’re going to have a large number of states who will be able to tell us what their real graduation rate is,” said Dane Linn, the education division director for the best-practices center. “That’s impressive.”

Competing in the 21st Century

But the work to improve high schools doesn’t stop with an improved graduation rate, said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. A former chairman of NGA’s education committee, the Republican will be the organization’s vice chairman in the coming year. “It doesn’t end there because once you get a clearer picture of the problem, you have to figure out where to go from there,” Gov. Pawlenty said in an interview with Education Week. “What we will have is a clearer road toward high school reform.”

Improving education will continue to be an important focus of the governors’ association after the Aug 4-7 meeting wraps up today. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, will become the group’s chairwoman; and education, specifically at the secondary level, will be her chief initiative. She succeeds Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, who led the group in attempts to improve health care in the states.

Gov. Napolitano’s Innovation America program, which will be unveiled here today, will merge K-12 educators, university leaders, and business chiefs into a task force committed to improving math and science in schools so students not only learn the material, but also learn how to apply those skills in their careers. The goal is to establish math and science academies, teacher-improvement initiatives, and other efforts to grow a workforce for the needs of states, whether it be agri-science in Iowa or engineering in Washington.

“I want to tie education into economic development,” Gov. Napolitano said in an interview. “We need to produce a workforce that can compete in the 21st century.”

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