Graduation rates have the potential to be a useful tool for determining the success of high school. For this reason, the federal government made reporting graduation rates mandatory in the No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately, as many researchers have noted, most states have failed to tap this potential and the federal government has been slow to enforce it. In fact, according to the Manhattan Institute, the federal government currently spends $40 million on tracking students’ educational achievement through the NAEP test of reading and math, but only $1 million on tracking graduation rates.
Under NCLB, states must report graduation rates annually. The act, to its credit, stipulates that schools count only those students who receive a regular diploma, as opposed to a GED, and, while there is no standardized calculation method, states must have their methods approved by the federal government. However, researchers at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Manhattan Institute say that this nonstandardized approach is flawed. In fact, research has shown that some states include GEDs among graduates and still have their plans approved, while others struggle to obtain data at all. The Civil Rights Project has estimated that data are only available for about half of all districts nationwide.
In Losing Our Future: How Minority Youths Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis, the Urban Institute argues that while the graduation rate accountability provisions in NCLB are not being seriously enforced, the “provisions creating incentives for removing low-scoring students are rigidly followed.” It notes that the regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education do not require graduation rates to be broken down by minority subgroups except when the “safe harbor”2 provision could help an otherwise struggling school make Adequate Yearly Progress.
Conversely, test scores must be disaggregated by minority subgroups-and, according to some researchers, give schools an incentive to “push out” students who might lower test scores-especially when these students’ disappearance could be masked within an overall graduation rate for the school. Finally, the act allows states to set their own goals for graduation rates. According to Christopher Swanson’s Education Weekcommentary, when states are allowed to set their own goals for graduation rates, they “range anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. Any amount of progress can be considered adequate, even if it is infinitesimal.”