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GETTING HONEST ABOUT GRAD RATES: Unreliable Graduation Rates Undercut High School Reform Efforts, According to New Report

"If we are going to prepare students for the challenges of college, work, and life, we need to transform our high schools," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust

High school reform efforts will be badly undermined by a lack of information on how many students are successfully completing high school and earning a diploma, according to a new report from the Education Trust. Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose is the latest in a spate of reports that call attention to the fact that far too many states are not providing accurate data on graduation rates, and that the U.S. Department of Education has failed to exert the necessary leadership and hold states accountable for their unreliable data.

“If we are going to prepare students for the challenges of college, work, and life, we need to transform our high schools,” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. “But if we are to persuade policymakers, educators, and the public to take on the vital and necessary work of high school reform, states must start telling the truth-telling the truth about how many students aren’t graduating from high school. And it would sure help if the U.S. Department of Education stopped sitting on the sidelines and worked to put an end to these shameful practices.”

This year, the report notes, states were required to report statewide graduation rates to the U.S. Department of Education, but were given quite a bit of leeway in this regard. In fact, there is no specific formula that states must use to calculate graduation rates, nor a specific requirement for how much a state must raise its graduate rate to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).1

As a result, the data most states submitted, if any, were either incomplete or “dubiously high” when compared to the results of independent analyses of state graduation rates. In fact, fifteen states reported graduation rates that differed by over 15 percent from an independent analysis by the Urban Institute’s Chris Swanson. In North Carolina, for example, the state-reported graduation rate of 97 percent was a full 33 percentage points higher than the rate that Swanson calculated (64 percent).

At the same time, the graduation-rate goals many states set were either “laughable” or “almost meaningless.” For example, the report notes that thirty-four states have set graduation-rate goals that are lower than their reported graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year, while thirty-one states have said that any improvement in the graduation rate is sufficient to meet AYP.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on Congress to ensure that states set meaningful goals for raising graduation rates when it reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind Act. It also asks that states be required to count graduation-rate improvement among subgroups of students (minority students, low-income students, students with disabilities, etc.) as one of their goals for making AYP. Currently, states must report graduation rates for subgroups of students, but they only need to show improvement for the student body as a whole in order to make AYP. In most states, a school can make AYP even if the graduation rate for low-income, minority, or other subgroups of students is declining, as long as the graduation rate for the school as a whole improves.

In reviewing the report’s findings, Washington Post staff writer Jay Mathews writes “No Child Left Behind tries to encourage high schools to improve their graduation rates, but unlike its test score improvement provisions, it does not threaten much action if they don’t. It turns out this is like telling all the thieves in the neighborhood that you have turned off your burglar alarm.”

Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose is available at

Jay Mathews’s column, “North Carolina’s Near Perfect Graduation Rate, and Other Fables,” is at


NGA Calls for Better Alignment of Federal Education LawsOn June 22, the National Governors Association brought together leading education experts from preschool through college (P-16) to discuss ways to align federal education laws. Forum participants argued that better alignment would create a more seamless education system, reduce duplication, and improve systemwide accountability, among other benefits.

“Our education system must be coordinated to serve all students for a lifetime of learning,” said Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D). “What children in Head Start learn should prepare them for kindergarten just as much as what high school students learn should prepare them for college and work. Alignment of federal P-16 laws will ultimately improve education for all students.”

NGA released a preliminary analysis on the relationship between major federal education laws. The analysis found that federal education laws too often

  • include inconsistent requirements across laws and programs;
  • establish duplicative requirements that may result in unnecessary burdens on states;
  • create no clear, coherent system to effectively and efficiently report information to the public, federal agencies, or Congress; and
  • provide funding limitations that hamper the integration and more strategic use of education dollars that were allocated for a common purpose.

More information on the event, including the preliminary analysis, is available at,1169,C_PRESS_RELEASE^D_8555,00.html.



1 – The report notes that under the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), schools “must demonstrate progress toward educating all students to state standards in reading and math. Schools must also meet goals set by their state for high school graduation rates.” In simpler terms, this provision requires states to set annual goals but allows them to choose their own methods of calculation and the amount of yearly improvement they must make. (Back to article)

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.