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NEW ALLIANCE PUBLICATION EXAMINES FEDERAL GRADUATION RATE POLICY: Brief Reviews Recent U.S. Department of Education Regulations and Their Impact on States and the Nation

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“Because more states are doing a better job of measuring high school graduation rates, they’re beginning to discover that not as many students are receiving their diploma as they originally thought.”

A new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education describes how federal policy has progressed from early attempts to simply calculate an agreed-upon high school graduation rate to present-day efforts aimed at using commonly defined rates as part of a refined accountability system to drive school improvement. The brief, Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, includes a national and state-by-state analysis of the impact of the graduation rate regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2008.

“Because more states are doing a better job of measuring high school graduation rates, they’re beginning to discover that not as many students are receiving their diploma as they originally thought,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “But simply identifying the problem isn’t enough. If I go to the doctor and leave with a diagnosis but no medicine, I’m not going to see any improvement. Today, the medicine that states and high schools need is to be held accountable for improving graduation rates. And if more states make graduation rates an essential component of their accountability systems, it will trigger attention and resources to low-performing high schools and lead to improved outcomes for students.”

The brief notes that the combination of inappropriate data, misleading calculations, and a lack of accountability for improvement created an environment in which the high school graduation rate crisis was unacknowledged and unaddressed prior to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Although NCLB helped raise awareness about this crisis, policies around high school graduation rates continue to be muddled at best. In October 2008, in an effort to shine some light on graduation rates and improve graduation rate policy, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced new federal regulations and guidance that changed NCLB’s requirements related to graduation rate data collection, calculation, and accountability.

The brief acknowledges that these new regulations, as well as work done by the National Governors Association and other organizations, are positive steps in the right direction, but argues that much more work needs to be done to provide clear and high expectations for graduation rate goals and growth. To help make graduation rates more useful in identifying and intervening in low-performing high schools, the brief, which was made possible through the support of the AT&T Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes several recommendations.

First, it says that states should be required to produce consistent and accurate calculations of graduation rates based on data that can follow students through their high school career. Second, it recommends that states include aggressive, attainable, and uniform requirements on how much schools, districts, and that states should improve their graduation rates each year as part of the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations included in NCLB. Such a requirement would ensure a minimum, consistent increase in graduation rates, as is currently required for test scores.

While NCLB holds schools accountable for test scores, it does not do the same for graduation rates. The brief recommends that states give equal weight to graduation rates and test scores in AYP determinations so that schools have balanced incentives, both to ensure that their students graduate and to raise test scores, instead of doing one at the expense of the other. Finally, it suggests that states be required to break down graduation rates by student subgroups (race, ethnicity, income, etc.) for reporting and accountability purposes and to ensure that school improvement activities focus on all students and close achievement gaps.

In concert with the release of Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, the Alliance for Excellent Education created individual state briefs that outline a state’s current high school graduation policies and describe how recent regulations from the U.S. Department of Education could impact these policies. The state briefs also highlight the policy concerns and hurdles that are unique to the state and must still be addressed. Specifically, they examine the formula that each state uses to calculate its high school graduation rate, and which individuals it counts as high school graduates. It also looks at the long-term and annual improvement goals that the state has set for its high school graduation rate, evaluates the data system that the state uses to calculate a four-year high school graduation rate, and the role that graduation rates play in the state accountability systems.

Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability can be found here

Individual state briefs are available at https://all4ed.org/publication_material/federal_grp.

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