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WAIVING AWAY HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATE ACCOUNTABILITY?: State NCLB Waiver Proposals Threaten to Weaken Accountability for High School Graduation Rates

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“In today’s information-age economy, high school graduation must be the starting point, not the finish line for a student to be economically successful throughout life.”

In September 2011, with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act—stalled in the U.S. Congress, President Obama outlined a plan to provide states flexibility within specific provisions of the law in exchange for state-led reform efforts to close achievement gaps, evaluate teachers and principals, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate ready for college and a career.

In November 2011, eleven states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—submitted applications to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from up to ten provisions of NCLB, including new accountability systems that would factor multiple measures of student achievement in order to provide a more complete picture of school performance.

After analyzing the waiver plans submitted by these eleven states, the Alliance for Excellent Education found that while the plans move accountability in a direction more aligned with college and career readiness, their treatment of high school graduation rates may reverse progress made in recent years to ensure accurate graduation rates are fully included in school accountability systems. These findings are contained in a new Alliance policy brief, “Waiving Away High School Graduation Rate Accountability?”

“In today’s information-age economy, high school graduation must be the starting point, not the finish line for a student to be economically successful throughout life,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “It is vital that graduation rates be included as a core component of state accountability systems. States that are revising their waiver applications to incorporate graduation rates more appropriately should be applauded for doing so.”

Under NCLB, states used inconsistent and inaccurate graduation rate calculations. High schools in some states could improve their graduation rates by less than 1 percentage point and still avoid consequences under the law, the analysis finds. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations requiring common, accurate graduation rate calculations for all high schools.

Under the 2008 regulations that took effect in the 2010–11 school year, schools reporting consistently low graduation rates automatically trigger improvement actions. Additionally, high schools that do not meet rigorous but achievable targets are required to undergo improvement. This could change under some of the current state waiver proposals, according to the Alliance analysis.

In conducting its analysis, the Alliance examined state waiver applications submitted by Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Under some state waiver proposals, the Alliance found that high school graduation rates would only account for a modest portion—14 percent to 30 percent, depending on the state—of complex accountability indexes that include tests, graduation rates, and other measures of college and career readiness. These indexes intend to provide a more accurate view of student achievement and drive students toward the goal of being ready for college and a career.

“If test scores in earlier grades or other indicators count far more for measuring a school’s progress than whether a student actually graduates, the fact that high school graduation rates count for so little in the proposed indexes could create an incentive for schools to ‘push out’ low-performing students in order to increase scores on standardized tests,” said Wise. “States are moving in the right direction by creating accountability systems that provide a more complete view of whether students are ready for college and a career, but this cannot come at the expense of holding states accountable for graduation rates.”

In its analysis, the Alliance calls on the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that proposals approved through the waiver process do not weaken the department’s more rigorous 2008 high school graduation rate regulations. In addition, the Alliance recommends that the department only approve waiver applications that give equal weight to high school graduation rates and measures of student achievement, while also allowing states to use additional measures of college and career readiness in their accountability systems.

The complete policy brief, which includes an analysis of all eleven state applications, is available here

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