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NEW REPORT OFFERS RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DEFINING AND IMPROVING GRADUATION RATES: Calls for New Federal Funding Stream for High Schools and an Expansion of Adolescent Literacy Initiatives

"While most agree that the mission of high schools is to graduate students prepared for postsecondary life, the larger debate comes down to providing schools with the capacity to improve teaching and learning," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of NASSP

Decrying the low graduation rates that plague low-income and minority students, a new report calls for a federal investment of $3.5 billion to address the academic needs of low-performing high school students.

Over the last several months, high school reform has enjoyed newfound attention from the policymaking community, including the nation’s governors and President Bush. At the same time, the debate over how to define and improve high school graduation rates, particularly in light of increased accountability from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has intensified. A new report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) takes an in-depth look at this debate and offers policy recommendations for improving graduation rate calculations and student outcomes.

According to the report, What Counts: Defining and Improving High School Graduation Rates, two issues dominate the debate on high school graduation rates. First, there is a need for a common understanding of “what [the] high school graduation rate” means. With different researchers using different methodologies and obtaining slightly different graduation rates, a simple concept-the number of students who actually receive their diploma-can be lost in technical jargon and esoteric language. Meanwhile, many practitioners are left to weed through the reports without much guidance on a particular calculation’s value or relevance. As the NASSP report points out, while the different methods may produce a different result and academics can argue their validity, it is the practitioner who “must deal with the big picture-that at least one-third of our students are not graduating from high school,” and about one-half of African-American and Hispanic students are not graduating on time. This issue-the great need to dramatically improve graduation rates, particularly for low-income and minority students-is the second focus of the report.

The variety of methodologies used to calculate graduation rates and limited resources (both technological and human) have created a climate in which school principals find themselves caught in the middle. The report notes that it is currently extremely difficult to account for all of the students who leave a school over a four-year period. Even with the best tracked figures, inaccuracies can arise as students move, transfer, or decide to obtain their GED. “Finding these students requires time and effort and takes limited resources away from other, perhaps more central priorities like improving student learning,” the report reads. Given these challenges, NASSP recommends the implementation of school-based quality data systems that can track student enrollment, progress, and graduation, allowing schools to report accurate results to their districts and states. The report also asks for resources for staff professional development and training on these systems.

“While most agree that the mission of high schools is to graduate students prepared for postsecondary life, the larger debate comes down to providing schools with the capacity to improve teaching and learning,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of NASSP. “There’s a domino effect that must take place. To improve graduation rates we must first reform high schools, but to reform high schools we must first build their capacity to better serve low-performing students. Building school capacity for teaching and learning requires a significant long-term investment for implementing systemic improvement that raises individual student and school-wide performance levels.”

In order to make more sense of the graduation rate calculations and methodologies that exist, NASSP also recommends the formation of a national commission that includes policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to address this issue and suggest a uniform way of keeping track of students as they move in and out of schools.1

In order to improve graduation rates, NASSP proposes the creation of a “new and separate funding stream to address the academic needs of low-performing high school students.” It notes that only 5 percent of Title I funds go to high schools, and calls for an investment of $3.5 billion in high schools, a number that “would be comparable to the amount of Title I funds provided to elementary schools.” The report comes out clearly in support of investments in early education but stresses the need for much more funding at the secondary level. In its other recommendations, NASSP supports the funding and expansion of adolescent literacy initiatives to improve high school students’ academic achievement and graduation rates. It also asks for flexibility for states to address grade-level structures and high school completion options that run from three to five years so the “priority is student mastery of subject rather than just completion of seat time.”

The NASSP report examines the pros and cons of the three main methods states currently use to calculate graduation rates-longitudinal studies, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) method, and the basic completion rate. In addition, it evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of four methods that researchers have used to estimating graduation rates nationally and on a state-by-state basis, including formulas used by NCES, the Manhattan Institute, the Urban Institute, and Johns Hopkins University. (More information on each method is available at


U.S. Department of Education Accepting Grant Applications to Support Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems


The U.S. Department of Education has announced a grant competition for a program to assist states in the design, development, and implementation of statewide longitudinal data systems. Only state education agencies (SEA) may apply. Successful applicants will receive between $1 million and $6 million for the entire project to develop longitudinal data systems that efficiently and accurately manage, analyze, disaggregate, and use individual student data.

A part of the No Child Left Behind Act, this grant program was funded for the first time last year when it received $24.8 million in the fiscal year 2005 omnibus funding bill. Under NCLB, state accountability interests require increasingly detailed data for data decisionmaking. However, meeting these requirements may pose challenges to states, because they may not have the student-level data needed to meet reporting and analytical requirements efficiently. Also, states and the districts that provide them with data have limited staff resources to address multiple, often simultaneous, requests for data from federal, state, and other users.

Statewide longitudinal data systems are intended to allow states to generate and use the data needed to comply with reporting requirements in an accurate and timely manner, facilitate research to improve student learning and close achievement gaps, promote linkages across states, and protect student privacy. While applications from states with the most limited ability to collect, analyze, and report individual student achievement data will have priority, consideration will not be limited to those states.

The deadline for the submission of applications is June 20, 2005. More information for grantees, including applications, is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.