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“EVERY STUDENT COUNTS”: New Alliance Policy Brief Makes the Case for Graduation Rate Accountability

"High schools can make AYP-thereby avoiding negative consequences-despite a consistent, or even a growing, graduation gap between high-performing and low-performing student groups."

In passing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, Congress acknowledged the importance of addressing the significant achievement gaps between students of differing racial, ethnic, economic, and linguistic backgrounds. However, in the years since the law’s enactment, it has become obvious that inequities continue to exist in and between schools, districts, and states across the country. Of special concern to “Every Student Counts: The Case for Graduation Rate Accountability,” a new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education, is NCLB’s failure to address a key measure of a successful school: its graduation rate.

Under NCLB, high schools must annually assess students in at least one grade in reading and math and track their graduation rates. However, misleading, inconsistent definitions and poor implementation have severely undermined the accuracy of graduation rates, making the indicator effectively useless in determining the success of a high school. As a result, the graduation rates that are publicly reported and used for accountability purposes do not reflect actual student outcomes. The brief notes that, in fact, the graduation rates that states report for NCLB accountability are, on average, 11 percentage points higher than independent estimates. In some cases, the difference is as high as 30 percentage points.

Nor does NCLB hold schools, districts, or states accountable for meaningfully improving graduation rates, in contrast to its strong emphasis on improving test scores. While the law requires states to set a graduation rate target for 2014 and to establish interim goals to be met along the way, the brief points out that weak accountability requirements have allowed states to set graduation rate goals as low as 50 percent. “Clearly, it was not the law’s intention that every child should become proficient by 2014 while only half the students graduate,” the brief reads.

Additionally, the brief notes that the law’s “safe harbor” provision lowers the graduation rate bar even further by allowing schools that miss their target to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), thus meeting federal accountability requirements by demonstrating a certain amount of improvement in their rate. However, these state-set goals are almost universally insignificant. As the brief points out, high schools in thirty-eight states can achieve safe harbor by improving graduation rates by just 0.1 percentage point or less a year; high schools in three states can meet their accountability obligations without making any graduation rate improvement at all.

Another problem with NCLB’s graduation rate accountability, according to the brief, is that, unlike with test scores, NCLB does not hold schools accountable for improving the graduation rates of each subgroup of students. As the brief notes, “High schools can make AYP-thereby avoiding negative consequences-despite a consistent, or even a growing, graduation gap between high-performing and low-performing student groups.” It points out that this loophole can create “perverse incentives” for schools to focus resources on the few students whose improved performance and attainment will allow the school to achieve the average graduation rate goal while ignoring the dropout rates of subgroups.

To combat these problems, the brief offers recommendations on how Congress can use the reauthorization of NCLB to ensure that the students with the greatest needs are adequately served and that the unintended consequences of the law’s weak graduation rate accountability provisions are corrected. First, it calls on Congress to “implement consistent and accurate calculations of graduation rates to ensure comparability and transparency.” Second, it says that NCLB reauthorization should require “aggressive, attainable, and uniform annual growth requirements as part of AYP to ensure a minimum, consistent increase in graduation rates” and require disaggregation for the reporting and accountability of graduation rates. Finally, it says that graduation rates and assessments should be given equal weight in AYP determinations so that “schools have balanced incentives to ensure that their students graduate and to raise their test scores, instead of doing one at the expense of the other.”

“The current system stresses testing while neglecting the essential measurement of whether or not students are actually graduating,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “I urge Secretary Spellings to incorporate the four principles presented in the Alliance’s brief as she develops regulations on graduation rates. These same principles must be taken into account by Congress, as well, as it works on the No Child Left Behind Act.”

The complete brief is available at

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