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MEASURING GRADUATION TO MEASURE SUCCESS: Alliance Policy Brief Focuses on Graduation Rate Calculation

A new Alliance for Excellent Education policy brief urges specific policy changes at the federal level to ensure that states accurately report high school graduation rates. Measuring Graduation to Measure Success was released at a December 9, standing-room-only symposium hosted by the Alliance. At the event, experts from the research community argued that accurate, reliable data about how the number of the nation’s children are not completing high school-and information about who these children are-are critical. Without it, they said, policymakers and school administrators are unable to effectively assess school quality, determine school progress, and propose reforms to improve outcomes.

Currently, most states calculate graduation rates using the same method as the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which researchers say results in graduation rates that are unreliable and misleading. For example, while NCES found a national high school completion rate of 86 percent for the class of 1998, calculation methods developed by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute andChristopher Swanson of the Urban Institute, who was a panelist at the Alliance’s symposium, put the national graduation rate in the 68-70 percent range, a difference of more than 15 percent.

To remedy this discrepancy, the Alliance proposes three policy changes, which are outlined in the brief. First, the U.S. Department of Education should enforce current NCLB requirements for calculating graduation rates and set explicit national rules for state formulas. Already, NCLB provides rigorous definitions for graduation rate calculations; for the most part, the problem lies in the way the law has been implemented. The brief suggests that the U.S. Department of Education begin aggressively enforcing graduation rate provisions in the law to reflect the intent of Congress.

Second, Congress should modify NCLB so that disaggregated graduation data carry consequences, such as those for Adequate Yearly Progress. Currently, NCLB holds states accountable if subgroups of student populations in schools and districts do not regularly improve their achievement levels as a measure of AYP, but this is not true for graduation rates. At the Alliance’s symposium, the Urban Institute’s Duncan Chaplin suggested that this disconnect of accountability for test scores but not graduation rates was akin to a hospital keeping statistics on the patients it treats who survive while ignoring data on those who die.

Finally, the federal government needs to provide additional funding for data collection and technical assistance to state departments of education and local school districts. Presently, state and local officials lack the technology, infrastructure, and expertise necessary to appropriately institute the reforms required by NCLB. In the 2005 omnibus spending bill, Congress allocated $25 million in new funding for states to build data systems. This funding is a crucial first step toward helping states get the systems they need.

As the policy brief explains, it is impossible to assess the progress being made by the nation’s high school students without valid, state-by-state calculations of high school graduation rates. Noting that a careful analysis of high school graduation patterns can provide essential insight into the performance of the public education system and should be a critical component in the development of future education policy, it concludes that the federal government must play a leadership role in ensuring that these data are available, consistent across the nation, and accurate.

However, symposium participants repeatedly pointed out that enough data already exist to prove that the country is in a crisis when it comes to graduation rates. Doug Mesecar of the U.S. Department of Education stressed that too many kids are dropping out of high school, even if we do not know whether they represent 10 percent, 25 percent, or 50 percent of students in a given area. He said that meaningful high school reform is overdue and that more conversations need to be held on why kids are dropping out and what can be done to prevent it.

Other panelists included Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins UniversityGreg Forster of the Manhattan InstituteDaniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard UniversityMoira Lenehan of the Office of Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (D), and Robert Lerner of the National Center for Education StatisticsScott Palmer of Holland and Knight LLP served as the moderator.

The policy brief, Measuring Graduation to Measure Success, as well as the agenda and supporting documents from the graduation rate symposium, are available on the Alliance website here. During the week of December 13, an audio recording from the symposium and a short write-up of the symposium will also be available on the website.

On the Bookshelf: Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis 

In Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate CrisisGary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, has edited a collection of essays that reveal the scope of the hidden dropout crisis in America. The book reviews the most recent and accurate data on graduation and dropout rates and explores the reasons that young people drop out of school. It also presents the most promising models for helping high school students graduate with their peers.

“There is a high school dropout crisis far beyond the imagination of most Americans, concentrated in urban schools and relegating many thousands of minority children to a life of failure. We urgently need to address this problem as a nation,” Orfield says. “Our goal in this book is to make the public aware of this issue and make improving high school graduation rates a central part of national education reform. We believe the first step must entail highlighting the severe racial disparities in high school graduation rates that exist at the school and district levels.”

More information on the book, as well as ordering information, is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.