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Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education, Testifies Today in Support of Maryland House Bill 71

Press Release:

Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education, Testifies Today in Support of Maryland House Bill 71

Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, will testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates’ Ways and Means Committee in support of House Bill 71. “I’m looking forward to expressing the Alliance’s support,” said Wise. “The importance of this bill is that now legislators will be joining with governors to guarantee accurate measurement of how many high school students are really graduating. With good data, states can better see where the problems are where precious education dollars should be spent.

HB71, which would establish accurate and honest comparisons of graduation rates from high school to high school and district to district, is sponsored by Delegates Gutierrez and Marriott and was developed in collaboration with the Alliance for Excellent Education and other education organizations. The bill supports the intent of the National Governors Association Compact on Graduation Rates, which called for a common, broadly accepted reporting formula for all states and school districts across the nation to provide accurate graduation rate and dropout data. Gov. Ehrlich was among the 50 governors who signed the Compact last year.

Delegate Gutierrez’s introduction of this bill marks the first step in a campaign by members of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators to support the introduction of similar legislation in a number of other states. Currently, reported data is both inaccurate and misleading, and hides the appalling fact that in many school districts – with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students – only about 50 percent of students graduate from high school.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has been a leader in the national effort to clarify and standardize the graduation rate formula to better inform educational policy and practice. Gov. Wise applauds Maryland as the first state to introduce legislation to improve graduation rate calculations, and urges legislatures in the rest of the nation to follow Maryland’s example.

Gov. Wise’s entire testimony is available below:


Testimony of Bob Wise, President of the Alliance for Excellent Education Before the Ways and Means Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates, Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Chairwoman Hixson, Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss House Bill 71, regarding high school graduation rates, introduced by Delegates Ana Sol Gutierrez and Salima Siler Marriott.

My name is Bob Wise and I am President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit policy, research, and advocacy organization whose mission is to support high school transformation to make it possible for every child to graduate high school prepared for postsecondary education, work and life. Our particular focus is on the 6 million students most at risk of dropping out of high school. I appear today to express the Alliance’s support for this legislation.

High School Graduation Rates/High School Dropout Rates – A National Problem Obscured by Poor Quality Data & Lack of Common Graduation Rate Definition

Today in this country, one third of our high school students fail to graduate with a diploma and an additional one third fail to graduate prepared for college or the workplace. In an economy where the demands of the modern workplace are equivalent to the demands of college, this represents a fundamental threat to our national competitiveness, our economic future and our democracy.

Of particular concern to the bill’s sponsors and the Alliance for Excellent Education is the fact that much of the current graduation data conceals the dangerously high percentage of students – disproportionately poor and minority – who disappear from the education pipeline before high school graduation. Research from the Urban Institute suggests that approximately 50 percent of students from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic backgrounds do not finish high school. They have a 50-50 chance of obtaining a degree, a startling statistic when you consider that in today’s economy, the vast majority of jobs that offer self-sufficiency and the ability to support a family require approximately two years of education after high school.

Also of concern is the fact that males from these racial and ethnic groups are faring substantially worse than females, and the situation is especially dismal for students in our nation’s high-poverty and urban districts, where as few as two in five students graduate.

Our nation and the State of Maryland face staggering costs due to the fact that so few of our poor and minority children are not earning diplomas. High school dropouts earn about 30% less than graduates and the earnings gap is getting substantially larger. People in prison and on public assistance are more likely to be high school dropouts. This translates into huge costs to our society with tremendous losses in tax revenue and productivity.

In Maryland alone, if half of the high school dropouts were to graduate from high school, the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that an additional $58.9 million would be generated in higher wages. If those individuals had some postsecondary education, earnings would increase by $113.7 and if these individuals were to complete a master’s degree, $183 million would be generated in additional wages.

However, the true dimensions of the graduation rate crisis have been and continue to be masked by poor data quality, lack of a common definition of the term “graduate” and failure to disaggregate graduation information. The quality of state data on graduation and dropout rates is such that many states cannot account for the status of their students as they progress through high school and beyond. Further, states calculate and report this information in such different ways that comparisons are nearly impossible. As a result, decidedly mixed and often inaccurate messages are being sent about the numbers of students who are actually graduating from the country’s high schools. Consider the following:

  • The Census Bureau defines a graduate as someone between the ages of 16-24 years old who completes high school with a regular diploma or other certificate. Included in this statistic are students who earn their diploma by passing General Equivalency Development (GED) tests although GED recipients have much higher rates of unemployment and are much more likely to need welfare or other forms of government assistance than their peers who graduate with a regular diploma. For 2001, the Census Bureau estimated a national graduation rate of 86.5%.
  • The U.S. Department of Education, recognizing “the urgent need for better graduation rate data” began reporting last year a new rate (known as the “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate”) which tracks more closely with independent estimates. This rate is derived by comparing the number of graduates to the number of students enrolled in eighth grade 5 years earlier, ninth grade 4 years earlier, and 10th grade three years earlier. But because the vast majority of high schools do not have an eighth grade, this formula, while helpful at the national and state level, is not a viable calculation at the school and district level. For the 2001-02 school year, the Department estimates the national graduation rate at 72.6%.
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has approved a variety of definitions for states to use for the purposes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act accountability. Although the law gives DOE latitude to approve definitions that are “more accurate” than the calculation described in the law, DOE has approved state-developed definitions that fail to account for large numbers of students who are enrolled but never graduate. Many states, for example, measure high school graduation based on 12th grade enrollment only, which fails to account for students who drop out in grades 9, 10 and 11. Most states, including Maryland, use the method developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) which relies heavily on a count of the number of students who are officially reported as having dropped out, rather than a count of the number of enrolled students. By measuring in this way, states inflate their graduation rate figures because dropout data exclude all those students who leave the educational system without officially notifying the school of their departure. Maryland’s reported graduation rate for 2001-02 using this methodology was 83.93%.
  • And leading researchers from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Urban Institute and the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University estimate that the national high school graduation rate is closer to 68-70 percent.

2005: More Robust Data Systems and Common Graduation Rate Definition Recognized as Key Tools for Greater Accountability, Successful Education Reform and Improving Student Achievement

In December 2004, the Alliance hosted a symposium and issued a policy brief focused on problems with graduation rate calculations. At the event, experts from the research community argued that accurate, reliable data about how many children are not completing high school – and who these children are – is critical.

This event was notable in that it brought together leading researchers in this area as well as federal policymakers. It was also notable in that it revealed strong agreement among many symposium participants as to the severity of the high school dropout crisis and the need for federal policy changes recommended by the Alliance to ensure more accurate accounting of high school graduation rates. The event was held in Washington, D.C., and clearly informed the efforts of federal policymakers, the National Governors Association and grant makers who devoted significant focus to this issue in 2005.

A key Alliance recommendation from the 2004 graduation rate symposium was for the federal government to provide additional funding for data collection and technical assistance to state departments of education and local school districts. It was noted that these funds were needed to support development of statewide longitudinal data systems (systems that track how individual students are doing over time from prekindergarten through 12th grade and into postsecondary education).

The Alliance was therefore very pleased to see the Department award $52.8 million in grants to 14 states to help build longitudinal data systems in 2005. Maryland actually received one of the largest awards, $5.7 million over three years.

The President’s budget for 2007 includes $30 million in additional funds to support development of statewide longitudinal data systems and the Alliance will continue to push for additional federal funding for this purpose.

Also, as previously noted, the U.S. Department of Education announced its intention to simultaneously encourage states to work toward the ultimate goal of improving their own data collection systems while also reporting for each state a new statistic, the “Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate.”
Paralleling this growing federal commitment to improved data quality and a common graduation rate were important efforts at the state level also.

Last year, all 50 of the nation’s governors, including Governor Ehrlich, signed a compact recognizing the primacy of accurate educational data and the need for a common graduation definition. Specifically, governors signing the compact embraced the four recommendations made by a National Governors Association (NGA) task force of governors’ advisors, state education officials, education research and data experts and representatives of organizations of state officials. Those recommendations were to: (1) begin implementing a standard four year adjusted cohort graduation rate using a common formula; (2) lead efforts to improve state data collection, reporting and analysis and to link the entire education pipeline from preschool through postsecondary education; (3) take steps to implement additional indicators that provide richer information about student and school performance; and (4) report annual progress of improvement on high school graduation, completion and dropout rate data.

The graduation rate definition to which the governors agreed, a four year adjusted cohort rate using a common formula, is a vast improvement over current calculations used by the U.S. Department of Education, the Census Bureau and most states.

It defines graduates as those students earning high school diplomas, not those earning credentials by passing GED tests or other alternatives to diplomas. It also specifies that students for whom there is no information will be documented as non-graduates or dropouts, thereby creating incentives for schools to seek out students and accurately determine their status which should result in a much more accurate calculation. This vastly improved graduation rate definition is the definition that H.B. 71 requires the state to adopt by 2010.

The Alliance for Excellent Education was one of 12 national organizations which signed the compact. The others are the: American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Business Roundtable, Education Commission of the States, Education Trust, Educational Testing Service, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Education Association, Standard and Poor’s School Evaluation Services and State Higher Education Executive Officers.

To support the governors’ compact commitments to implement longitudinal data systems, the Alliance also joined as a founding member of the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a national collaborative effort to encourage and support state policymakers in improving the collection, availability and use of high quality education data by 2009. As part of its work, generously underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the DQC is hosting a series of events to assist states in developing their data systems. Next month the DQC will cosponsor a major Alliance for Excellent Education symposium on improving educational outcomes by building effective longitudinal data systems.

You may also be interested to know that in August, the Data Quality Campaign conducted a survey of all 50 states to determine how many of them had the ten essential elements to build a complete longitudinal data system. The survey found that no state in the country had all ten elements and that only 14 had the four elements necessary to calculate each school’s graduation rate in accordance with the NGA compact. It also found that Maryland had only one of the 10 essential elements. The complete survey results can be found at and the results for the Maryland survey are attached to my testimony.

Where Does Maryland Stand and How Does This Legislation Move the State Forward?

Where does Maryland stand against this national backdrop of growing attention to high school graduation and drop out rate?

While the disparity between the high and low calculations of the national graduation rate vary by almost 20%, there is less variation on the Maryland state statistics, with about a seven percent difference between the state’s reported graduation rate for NCLB purposes (83.93%) and independent research estimates (of 77%) for 2001-02.

Nonetheless, H.B. 71 moves the State of Maryland forward in three important ways: (1) it specifies a graduation rate definition to be used no later than 2010 which comports with the common definition agreed upon by the governors and which will ultimately enable valid comparisons among the states; (2) the legislation specifies a more basic interim formula to be used while the state builds the longitudinal data system necessary to calculate the graduation rate in accordance with the compact definition (and because this interim formula is not based on dropout data, it is an improvement over the state’s current calculation); and (3) the legislation requires the disaggregation of data so critical to understanding and addressing performance gaps for poor and minority students. There can be little hope of effectively addressing these challenges in particular until they can be seen clearly, rather than obscured by composite and inaccurate graduation rates.

Governor Ehrlich has signed the graduation rate compact committing the state to building the state’s data system capacity and to using a common graduation rate. However, states around the country are recognizing the need and importance of passing legislation and/or state regulations to ensure that permanence will be given to these commitments.

In fact, Maryland is the first state wherein such legislation has been introduced. With $5.7 million in federal money to help build a statewide longitudinal data system, with counties who are far ahead of the curve like Montgomery County which already has individual student identifiers (a key building block for longitudinal data systems) and with the possibility of state legislation to improve the quality of the state’s reported graduation rate data, Maryland has all of the pieces in place to become a national leader on this issue.

I want to be clear that the Alliance for Excellent Education believes that accurate data collection and reporting is only a first step toward educational excellence for all students and that it must be supplemented by stronger graduation rate accountability and longitudinal data systems to track student progress over time.

But we believe that accurate collecting and reporting is a critical first step. We are joined in this belief and in support of this legislation by numerous organizations including the Education Trust, the National Education Association and the National Center for Educational Accountability (which have signed along with the Alliance a letter in support of this legislation, a copy of which is attached to my testimony).

Maryland’s Leadership Role

Through the joint efforts of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the National Caucus of Black State Legislators, legislators throughout the country will be introducing legislation similar to H.R. 71 this year. Various state boards of education will continue to craft regulations to help their states move forward with their compact commitments.

This July, the National Governors Association will report on each state’s progress in the past year in fulfilling the national graduation rate compact, including the passage of related state legislation. I hope that the Maryland General Assembly will see fit to pass this legislation and that the July report will show evidence of a strong commitment in Maryland to make the compact’s goals real for your state and all of its citizens.


Letter to Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez from the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Education Trust and the National Education Association

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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. It is funded by the Leeds Family, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Daniels Fund, as well as by other concerned foundations and individuals.

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