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The First 55 Minutes: Defining the National Dropout Crisis with Consistent and Accurate Graduation Rate Calculations

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June 14, 2010 02:15 pm


This week, the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center released the latest results of their annual look at high school graduation rates. In the June 10th issue of Education Week, “Diplomas Count 2010: Graduation by the Numbers – Putting Data to Work for Student Success”, EPE provides a look at national, state-by-state, and even district level graduation rates.


Diplomas_Count_Graph - 55 minutes

The overall message is grim: the slow-but-steady improvement we had been seeing in the last decade has stopped and has now slipped backwards for two years in a row (see the chart to the right). According to EPE, the national graduation rate has fallen almost half of a percentage point to 68.8%. And, though each subgroup actually saw slight improvements (a seemingly contradictory juxtaposition with a declining national rate, but explained by EPE as the result of changing demographics), the gap between white students and students of color remains unacceptably large.

These results are disheartening, but shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though in the past several years the nation has become more aware and committed to the dropout crisis that is threatening the nation’s high schools and their communities, we have only begun to make significant and systemic commitments to improving high schools and addressing the dropout crisis.

When trying to solve a crisis as large and with such significant consequences as the dropout crisis, it’s easy to put the cart before the horse. However, as Einstein famously said, if faced with just one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and just five minutes looking for solutions. In the case of the dropout crisis, we have skipped the first 55 minutes and jumped straight into the last five. Sadly, the reason we’ve done this is because we don’t have the information we need to adequately define the problem.

The need for a report such as EPE’s is evidence of this point: EPE’s independent calculations—which are a well-conceived but still best-guess estimate of actual graduation rates—are necessary because we have yet to calculate graduation rates across states and districts using an accurate and consistent calculation method. (To read more about this issue and the different calculations currently in use by states, see the Alliance’s page on “Federal High School Graduation Rate Policies and the Impact on States” here).

A first significant step to rectify this information void was taken in 2008 when the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations requiring that states use an accurate and common calculation method to measure the graduation rate in their high schools. However, states aren’t required to report graduation rates using this calculation method until the 2010-11 school year and several have received waivers to postpone the transition to the new calculation because they do not have the data systems in place to allow for such a calculation.

Of course, compliance is key and the 2008 regulations will only prompt consistent and accurate graduation rate reporting if states fully comply. Therefore, despite the progress we’ve made with the establishment of the regulations, the onus remains on states and the U.S. Department to be vigilant and committed to implementing them. Without the data that the regulations promise to provide, we’ll face a tough climb trying to move the dropout crisis past the first 55 minutes and into the solutions.

Incidentally, a part of the solution, the 2008 regulations also required that states set meaningful goals for improving graduation rates and hold schools accountable for meeting those goals. Stay tuned for more posts on what this means, what states have pledged to do, and if we’re ready to face the reality that accurate graduation rates could present, especially to districts and states that are currently using particularly egregious calculation methods.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.