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STATES ENGAGE IN FUZZY MATH: New U.S. Department of Education Analysis Finds a Majority of States Way Off on Graduation Rate Calculations

"The department will now be able to see national trends better and to identify which states need to improve their individual reporting the most."

Eleven states drastically overestimate the number of students who graduate from high school, according to the averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR), a new calculation from the U.S. Department of Education. When compared to state-reported graduation rates, 11 states differed from the AFGR by 10 percent or more, and 16 states reported differences between 5 and 10 percent. Only 11 states were within 3 percent of the department-calculated graduation rate.

The Biggest Offenders: Largest Discrepancies in 2002-03 Graduation Rates

State State-Reported Graduation Rate Department-Calculated Graduation Rate Difference
North Carolina
New Mexico
South Dakota


When announcing, in July, that the department would calculate AFGR, Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon said that the new calculation would address the need for a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of how many students graduate from high school. In addition, the calculation is to serve as a measuring stick to identify the states that are fudging the number of students they report as graduating.

“The department will now be able to see national trends better and to identify which states need to improve their individual reporting the most,” Simon said. “This new figure will give us direction as we push for much-needed high school reform.”

According to the analysis, New Jersey (87 percent), North Dakota (86.4 percent), and Wisconsin (85.8 percent) graduated the highest percentages of their high school students on time. On the other end of the spectrum, Washington, D.C. (59.6), South Carolina (59.7 percent), and Georgia (60.8 percent) had the lowest graduation rates, according to the department. In addition to calculating graduation rates for the states, the department also reported a national graduation rate of 73.9 percent for the class of 2003.

While not as accurate as an on-time graduation rate computed using student record data, the AFGR can be computed with available data reported by state education agencies. It uses aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class and aggregate counts of the number of diplomas awarded 4 years later.

According to the analysis, the national AFGR for the class of 2003 is “based on the 2,719,947 diploma recipients reported for school year 2002-03 divided by the average of the 3,529,963 eighth-grade student enrollment reported for October 1998-99, the 3,986,992 ninth-grade student enrollment reported for October 1999-2000, and the 3,529,652 tenth-grade student enrollment reported for October 2000-01. The 2,719,947 public school diploma recipients divided by the 3,682,202 averaged number of public school freshmen, multiplied by 100, results in a 2002-03 public school graduation rate for the United States of 73.9 percent.”

Simon said that the AFGR is comparable across states and has been shown to track closely with the true on-time graduation rate. This calculation is meant to serve as a placeholder while states develop more comprehensive data collection systems that can track individual students.

The complete report, The Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for Public High School From the Common Core of Data is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.