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WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?: The Nation’s Governors and the U.S. Department of Education Weigh In on the Graduation Rate Debate

"As chairman of NGA, I have made it my priority to raise national awareness about the urgent need to improve America's high schools and make them more challenging and relevant to student needs."

Under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, states are required to report statewide graduation rates to the U.S. Department of Education, but the department has allowed quite a bit of leeway in this regard. As a result, states are using at least five different calculation methods, most of which are highly questionable, according to independent researchers. For example, eleven states reported graduation rates that differed by more than 15 percent from an independent analysis by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Without valid calculations of high school graduation rates, it is impossible to assess the progress being made by the nation’s schools and students. A careful analysis of high school graduation patterns provides essential insight into the performance of the public education system and should be a critical component in the development of future education policy. To address the uncertainty around state-reported graduation rates, two entities-the U.S. Department of Education and the National Governors Association (NGA)-took separate but parallel actions regarding graduation rates last month.

On July 17, at the NGA’s national meeting in Iowa, forty-five governors and twelve national organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, signed “A Compact on State High School Graduation Data,” agreeing to take a variety of steps to improve the reliability of the graduation rates they report. (Since then, two additional governors have signed the compact, leaving only Florida, Texas, and Wyoming yet to join.) By signing, governors agreed to begin improving state data collection and implementing a standard four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate that reports the percentage of students who graduated within four years of their initial enrollment in ninth grade, with adjustments for transfers in and out of the system.

“As chairman of NGA, I have made it my priority to raise national awareness about the urgent need to improve America’s high schools and make them more challenging and relevant to student needs,” said NGA Chairman Virginia Governor Mark Warner. “However, without better data, our efforts will fall short. Because of the inconsistent quality of state data on graduation and dropout rates, many states cannot account for the status of their students as they progress through high school and beyond. The historic compact we signed today will help address this problem.”

The compact is supported by a new report from NGA’s Task Force on State High School Graduation Data that was developed with input from representatives of eight governors’ offices and several national organizations. Graduation Counts outlines five recommendations that states should use to develop a high-quality, comparable high school graduation measure, as well as complementary indicators of student progress and outcomes and data systems capable of collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data.

In a move that should complement states’ efforts to more accurately measure graduation rates and develop better, more comprehensive data collections systems, the U.S. Department of Education announced on July 13 that it will publish states’ Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) alongside the graduation rates that states currently report under NCLB. While the governors’ efforts to implement long-term systemic change in states’ practice of collecting and reporting graduation rates will take time and resources, calculations by the U.S. Department of Education will provide an interim mechanism for comparing data across states.

The following chart briefly outlines comparisons between NCLB’s graduation rate reporting requirements and NGA and the U.S. Department of Education’s graduation rate calculations.

No Child Left Behind

U.S. Department of Education

National Governors Association

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires states to use graduation rates when calculating Adequate Yearly Progress for public high schools.NCLB defines graduation rates for public secondary students as “the percentage of students who graduate from secondary school with a regular diploma in the standard number of years.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released regulations to allow states to “use another definition, developed by the state and approved by the [department] that more accurately measures the rate of students who graduate from high school with a regular diploma.”

As a result, there is no specific formula that states must use to calculate graduation rates, nor a specific requirement for how much a state must raise its graduate rate to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

The U.S. Department of Education will report the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) alongside the rates reported by each state as part of the state report card.In calculating the AFGR, the U.S. Department of Education will use existing data submitted through the Common Core of Data, which is part of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The AFGR is the number of high school graduates receiving a regular diploma in a given year divided by the average of the number of students enrolled in eighth grade five years earlier, ninth grade four years earlier, and tenth grade three years earlier.

The governors agreed to calculate graduation rates by dividing the number of on-time graduates in a given year by the number of first-time entering ninth graders four years earlier.Under the compact, graduates are those students who receive a high school diploma. The denominator can be adjusted for transfers in and out of the system.

The governors also agreed to develop data systems to track individual students with a longitudinal student unit record data system. When in place, this system will allow states to have even more accurate records of what is happening to students.

Additional issues to be addressed under the compact include five- or six-year cohort graduation rates, completion rates for those earning alternative credentials, in-grade retention rates, a college-readiness rate, and a high school dropout rate.


Graduation Counts: A Report of the NGA Task Force on State High School Graduation Data is available at here.

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