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“EDUCATION COULD DO MORE”: GAO Asks U.S. Department of Education to Take a Bigger Role in Promoting Successful Interventions at the High School Level

Increasing and accurately calculating graduation rates have been “formidable challenges” for many states and school districts, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). According to the report, the U.S. Department of Education could help states better address these challenges if it did more to help states define graduation rates and improve knowledge about intervention strategies to decrease the number of high school dropouts.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), states are required to use high school graduation rates, along with test scores, to determine how much progress high schools are making in educating their students. As the report notes, graduation rates, used in conjunction with test scores, provide a “more complete picture of school performance than test scores alone, because a school’s test proficiency rate will be higher if low-performing students drop out and do not have their scores included with their peers.”

In examining how states calculate their graduation rate, the report found that only twelve states currently use a “cohort” definition that tracks students throughout their high school career. While an additional eighteen states plan to adopt the cohort definition by the 2007-08 school year, they currently lack the sophisticated data systems needed to track students over time. Right now, thirty-two states use a much less reliable definition that is based primarily on the number of students who have been classified by schools as “dropouts” over a four-year period. This method is problematic because it relies on schools correctly identifying and reporting students who drop out. In the report, state, district, and school officials said the more a school’s students come and go, the more challenging it is to maintain records on whether students leave a school via transfer or simply drop out. Without effective data systems in place, these issues will continue to trouble states.

While the department has taken several steps to help states with their data collection issues, accuracy remains a key issue. To address it, the department has created an “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate” that it will publish alongside the graduation rates that states report under NCLB. The department’s additional measure will calculate state graduation rates by taking the number of high school graduates receiving a regular diploma in a given year, and dividing it by the average of the number of students enrolled in eighth grade five years earlier, ninth grade four years earlier, and tenth grade three years earlier.

Additionally, the department has added a review component to monitor and examine the data that states use for graduation rates. However, the GAO report points out that the department’s new review component may not be sufficient to compensate for inherent problems with state data. As a result, states may be unable to provide accurate data for the department’s estimates. “Student data accuracy is particularly important because [the department] plans to use those state data reported to [the National Center for Education Statistics] to develop interim graduation rate estimates, which are intended to promote consistency across states and provide a nationwide perspective,” the report reads.

When it looked at interventions that states and school districts have implemented to increase high school graduation rates, GAO found that some programs showed potential to meet that goal, but few had been rigorously evaluated. In total, the report identified only five interventions that were both evaluated and showed potential for improving graduation rates: Check and Connect, which features a mentor who acts as both an advocate and a service coordinator for at-risk students; Project GRAD, a comprehensive K-12 reform program; Help One Student to Succeed (HOSTS), a structured tutoring program in reading and language arts that targets low-performing elementary students with reading skills below grade level; and two comprehensive high school reform models, the Talent Development High School Model and First Things First.

Most of the other reviewed programs fell into one of three categories: restructuring schools, providing supplemental services, or creating alternative learning environments. While these programs showed promising results that could lead to improving student outcomes, they had not been rigorously evaluated. “Some interventions have conducted limited evaluations of a variety of different outcomes (attendance, test scores, job attainment), but more comprehensive evaluations are necessary to understand programs’ effects on graduation rates,” the report reads.

In its analysis of successful interventions, GAO found that the U.S. Department of Education has “done little” to evaluate and disseminate existed knowledge about effective interventions.

“Agency officials have commented several times that they plan to evaluate the research on dropout prevention efforts and then disseminate the results through the agency’s What Works clearinghouse. However, the Web space for this effort still contains placeholder information,” the report reads. Among its recommendations, the report suggested that the department establish a timetable for evaluating research on dropout interventions, “including those that focus on increasing graduation rates,” and that the department disseminate research on programs shown to be effective in increasing graduation rates.

The complete report is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05879.pdf.

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