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Alliance for Excellent Education Releases New Brief on Federal High School Graduation Rate Policy

Press Release:

Alliance for Excellent Education Releases New Brief on Federal High School Graduation Rate Policy

The Alliance for Excellent Education today released a new brief that describes how federal policy has progressed from early attempts to simply calculate an agreed-upon high school graduation rate to present-day efforts aimed at using commonly defined rates as part of a refined accountability system to drive school improvement. The brief, Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, also includes a national and state-by-state analysis of the impact of the graduation rate regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2008.

“Because more states are doing a better job of measuring high school graduation rates, they’re beginning to discover that not as many students are receiving their diploma as they originally thought,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “But simply identifying the problem isn’t enough. If I go to the doctor and leave with a diagnosis but no medicine, I’m not going to see any improvement. Today, the medicine that states and high schools need is to be held accountable for improving graduation rates. And if more states make graduation rates an essential component of their accountability systems, it will trigger attention and resources to low-performing high schools and lead to improved outcomes for students.”

To help make graduation rates more useful in identifying and intervening in low-performing high schools, the brief, which was made possible through the support of the AT&T Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes the following recommendations to the federal government:

  1. Require consistent and accurate calculations of graduation rates based on data that can follow students through their high school career to ensure comparability;
  2. Include aggressive, attainable, and uniform requirements on how much schools, districts, and states should improve their graduation rates each year as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations to ensure a minimum, consistent increase in graduation rates, as is currently required for test scores;
  3. As opposed to current law, which holds schools accountable for test scores but not graduation rates, give equal weight to graduation rates and test scores in AYP determinations so that schools have balanced incentives, both to ensure that their students graduate andto raise test scores, instead of doing one at the expense of the other;
  4. Require graduation rates to be broken down by student subgroups (race, ethnicity, income, etc.) for reporting and accountability purposes to ensure that school improvement activities focus on all students and close achievement gaps.

The Every Student Counts Act (ESCA), which was introduced on March 17 in the U.S. Senate by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), would create a graduation rate calculation that is consistent across states, require reporting of subgroup graduation rates, set meaningful graduation rate goals and targets, and remove incentives for schools to push out low-performing and at-risk students. (More information on ESCA is available at

“Great progress has been made in the last few years as researchers, advocates, and state leaders have worked to improve the way graduation rates are calculated,” Wise said. “And although the recent regulations from the U.S. Department of Education are a good next step, it is important to ensure that high school accountability includes high school graduation rates. Doing so is necessary to move beyond merely calculating and reporting graduation rates to improving them and ensuring that all students graduate with an education that prepares them for life after high school. I commend Senator Harkin and Representative Scott for introducing the Every Student Counts Act, which, if enacted, would bring this goal closer to a reality.

The state briefs that accompany the national brief examine the impact that the new graduation rate regulations will have on each individual state while also highlighting the policy concerns and hurdles that are unique to that state and must still be addressed.

Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability can be found here.

Briefs for individual states are available here.

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The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington-based policy, research, and advocacy organization that works to make every child a graduate, prepared for postsecondary education and success in life. For more information about the Alliance for Excellent Education, please visit

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