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THE NEXT GENERATION OF SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY: New Report Examines How to Improve Graduation Rates and Student Achievement Levels in SREB States

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"Without more students graduating from high school-and then completing two-and four-year degrees and advanced career training-our nation's economic future is at risk and the South's quality of life will dwindle. Our states' education policies will set the course."

Although high school graduation rates have significantly improved across the sixteen Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) states since 2000, there is still much work to be done. That is the message from a recent SREB report entitled The Next Generation of School Accountability: A Blueprint for Raising High School Achievement and Graduation Rates in SREB States. The study calls on state leaders to take part in the solutions phase of improving student achievement in high school and beyond.

“Without more students graduating from high school-and then completing two-and four-year degrees and advanced career training-our nation’s economic future is at risk and the South’s quality of life will dwindle. Our states’ education policies will set the course,” writes Dave Spence, president of SREB, in the opening message of the report.

The study emphasizes the negative economic consequences of not immediately addressing the dropout crisis and calls for the “political courage” to apply what has been learned at successful high schools to effective state policy solutions. In a list of ten guiding principles, the report outlines strategies for southern states to improve their school accountability systems. Chief among the recommendations is to give equal weight to graduation and achievement in determining school performance. The report argues that increasing graduation rates should be a parallel objective (rather than a secondary objective) to improving student achievement.

Setting ambitious yet realistic goals in improving graduation rates is another key recommendation for ensuring that more students graduate college and career ready. Specifically, the report’s authors propose that all SREB states strive for an average statewide graduation rate of 90 percent with the recognition that not all schools will start at the same spot, but they should arrive at the same end.

Throughout the study, the authors caution against lowering standards in an attempt to help more students meet expectations. However, the report also warns that the pressure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind has caused many teachers and administrators to overlook struggling students. In order to reach the right balance, the report advises that schools set high standards while providing an engaging curriculum with challenging and meaningful opportunities to learn.

Beyond the traditional ways of learning, the report encourages schools to “broaden the definition of academic rigor to include career/technical programs of study that join a ‘ready’ academic core with a coherent sequence of quality CT courses.” These types of programs are particularly relevant to the at-risk group of high schools students who fail to envision a clear career path. Gene Bottoms, SREB senior vice president, challenges states to “define in policy what intellectually demanding career/technical studies look like.”

Additionally, SREB suggests it is imperative to not only concentrate on school failures, but also to recognize the districts, schools, and teachers making real progress. The schools thriving with improvements should be rewarded with funding incentives as well as be required to document their success stories for the purpose of spreading best practices.

The other guiding principles include strengthening middle grades students’ transitions into high school and reducing ninth-grade failure rates; recognizing that one path to graduation does not fit all students; bringing dropouts back into the education system; targeting schools with the lowest achievement levels and graduation rates for major improvements; and making better use of the senior year to prepare students for graduation and give students a jump-start on college and careers.

The recommendations were informed by members of the SREB Committee to Improve High School Graduation Rates and Achievement, led by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (R). Member states of SREB include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

To read the full report, visit http://publications.sreb.org/2009/09V17_Blueprint_Highschools.pdf.

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