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WHO’S COUNTED? WHO’S COUNTING?: New Alliance Report Examines Graduation Rate Reporting, Addresses Public Confusion, Presents Policy Solutions

“The country can’t hope to make significant progress on education reform if it doesn’t know the real story of how students are doing,” notes Bob Wise

Each year, approximately 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school. This means that every school day, 7,000 American high school students become dropouts. Unfortunately, the combination of flawed reporting in the past and confusion regarding the way graduation rates are calculated today have left the American public confused about how many students drop out and why graduation rates are so important. So says, Who’s Counted? Who’s Counting? Understanding High School Graduation Rates, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education authored by Lyndsay Pinkus. The report explains why so many different graduation rate formulas and statistics exist, addresses why states report them differently, and­—most importantly—defines the policy changes needed to ensure that educators, school officials, parents, and the public receive timely and accurate information about how many students are actually graduating so that they can assess their schools’ current effectiveness and make improvements.

“The country can’t hope to make significant progress on education reform if it doesn’t know the real story of how students are doing,” notes Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Conflicting graduation rates make it impossible to determine if student academic achievement and attainment goals are being met. There’s increasing consensus on what we need to do to solve this problem; now more policymakers need to actively support changes that will result in getting the nation the reliable data it needs.”

However, even as educators, researchers, and policymakers increasingly speak of the need to more accurately and consistently measure and report high school graduation rates, the public remains confused about why these rates are so important. Nor do they realize exactly how low graduation rates are in certain parts of the country. In fact, it has been only within the past few years that independent researchers such as Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and Christopher Swanson of Editorial Projects in Education shocked the education community by reporting that one third of students do not graduate from high school on time with regular diplomas. The unacceptably low graduation rates, particularly among children who live in poverty and children of color, have been obscured for far too long by inaccurate data, misleading official graduation and dropout rates, and flawed accountability systems at the state and federal levels.

The Alliance’s report is meant to serve as a “users’ guide” that helps individuals navigate through the maze of graduation rate calculations and reporting requirements and to inform them about the dropout crisis in American high schools. It explains the role that graduation rates play in holding schools, districts, and states accountable (including their role in meeting No Child Left Behind Act requirements), and provides a detailed chronology of reform initiatives. It also describes the various calculation methods and includes a state-by-state comparison of the most commonly reported graduation rates.

The report finds that, even today, most data and accountability systems at the school, district, and state levels do not have the capacity to provide true accountability, accurate data, and reliable graduation rates. Fortunately, stakeholders at the local, state, and national levels have demonstrated leadership by taking important steps to build capacity to meet those goals. For example, the U.S. Department of Education has begun reporting its own graduation rate for each state, and all 50 of the nation’s governors signed a compact to implement a common, accurate graduation rate and to create better systems and methods of collecting, analyzing, and reporting graduation and dropout data. Despite the momentum that these various efforts have spurred, much work remains to be done.

According to the report, a lack of common and consistent definitions of what is to be measured, adherence to set reporting standards, and sophisticated data systems that keep track of each student as he or she enters, exits, and moves through the system makes it difficult to have a meaningful national conversation about improving graduation rates. But given the growing consensus on the need to improve outcomes for students, the report argues that now is the time to move from a public discourse centered on identifying the problems with calculating and reporting accurate graduation rates to one that focuses on a national solution to raise those rates.

To meet this goal, the report offers five policy recommendations designed to leverage, incentivize, support, and accelerate action at the local, state, and federal levels:

  • States should calculate comparable, accurate, disaggregated graduation rates and use those rates for NCLB reporting and accountability.
  • States and the federal government should invest in well-designed, statewide longitudinal data systems to track individual students over time.
  • States should implement the National Governors Association’s Graduation Rate Compact, signed by all 50 governors in 2005.
  • The U.S. Department of Education should require schools to report the number of diploma recipients; the number of 9th-grade repeaters; and the number of 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who have been verified as transferring in and out. These simple steps would allow anyone to estimate graduation rates for any high school in the nation.
  • NCLB reauthorization should ensure the reporting and use of accurate, disaggregated graduation rate data as a key component of high school accountability, including meaningful annual and ultimate goals for improving graduation rates and appropriate and funded improvement actions for schools in need of improvement.

“To meet the challenges of the new century, the United States needs to move from a national goal of leaving no child behind to one of making every child a graduate who is prepared for college, work, and success in life,” the report concludes. “If the country is serious about educating all students to high standards and, by so doing, retaining its competitive position in the world, action on this issue is not an option; it is an imperative.”

The complete report is available here.


Register for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Third Annual High School Policy ConferenceFrom the Capitol to the classroom, America is debating how to improve its high schools. Most people agree on the problem: too few students graduate with the skills they need for college, the workplace, and a competitive global economy. And although research and practice tell us what to do to improve high schools, a widespread agreement on how to do it and who should lead the charge is lacking.

Without a common policy agenda for high school reform and the public will to implement it, the current movement to improve high schools may fade into an interesting but minor footnote in textbooks. More importantly, millions of students will simply languish in low-performing schools. To move to national high school reform—from debate to action—it is important to build consensus on the policies that will support effective reform.

The Alliance invites you to be part of a critical conversation on the next step in high school reform: building a shared federal policy agenda that will transform our high schools so that every student graduates ready for college, work, and success in life. The conference will be held October 12–13 in Washington, DC. Conference participants will discuss what a shared agenda for national high school reform might encompass and then consider what policy levers are best suited to turn the agenda into reality.

The conference agenda and registration information are available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.