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Waiver Watch: Time for ED to Get Serious about Graduation Rates

Published:  December 4, 2012
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Photo from the U.S. Department of Education.

Last week on Ed Money Watch, Clare McCann reported on the new, comparable, statewide high school graduation rates released by the U.S. Department of Education. The bottom line: graduation rates are lower than previously reported, and achievement gaps are a huge challenge for states. But even though the news is grim, the fact that the data exist is a major achievement. The more accurate rates are the result of years of negotiations and efforts by governors, state education agencies, the U.S. Department of Education, and advocacy groups. It’s been no secret that previous graduation rate numbers were inflated, and often flat-out wrong. Unfortunately, though, just as states gain better graduation rate data, many are failing to use them to their full potential.

Originally, graduation rates were a component of high school accountability under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but schools could often make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) if they showed very little improvement. That changed in 2008 with the adoption of the 4-year adjusted cohort rate. By the 2011-2012 school year, not only would accountability judgments be made with accurate data, but states would also base high schools’ AYP determinations on “continuous and substantial” progress toward graduation rate targets for all students and for student subgroups.

So far, so good. But the 2008 Department of Education couldn’t travel in time to see that in the 2011-2012 school year, many states would be transitioning away from NCLB-style accountability and AYP altogether. With the recent addition of Pennsylvania, only four states will not apply for some sort of NCLB waiver (if you count Texas and California as submitting valid requests). In the era of federal education policy via waiver, many states have refined their accountability plans by adding individual student growth, college and career readiness, and other measures to provide a better picture of school achievement than determinations based mostly on proficiency rates.

But adding multiple measures to accountability schemes – and then condensing them into one overall grade or ranking – can introduce new problems. An aggregate grade may be simple to understand, but it also provides less information to parents and policymakers than the data for each component within the grade. And under some states’ waivers, performance on one indicator – like graduation rates – could be masked by above-average performance on another, like test scores. Finally, while many argue NCLB placed too much weight on tests, diluting the significance of existing data by adding more measures to the system sends a different signal (and perhaps a negative one) to educators and parents about what matters most.

Before, low graduation rates could trigger a school not to make AYP and, therefore, to be placed in improvement status. Now, college and career readiness factors (like SAT or ACT scores and AP exam performance) are often weighted equally with graduation rates. This may create incentives for high school administrators and educators to focus on improving college and career readiness at the expense of efforts to prevent dropouts. To be sure, college and career readiness is important. But students will never be college- and career-ready if they don’t graduate from high school. Schools must pursue both goals – higher graduation rates and higher readiness rates – at the same time, and accountability systems should reflect both.

Even more alarming, many states’ waivers are a step backward from the carefully-negotiated 2008 regulations. States are still required to report the 4-year adjusted cohort rates, but many are not using the new measure as intended for accountability in their waivers. In some cases, states are backing away from commitments to hold schools accountable for subgroup performance. Worse, others have modified the 4-year adjusted cohort rate for accountability purposes by giving schools credit for students graduating in five or six years, or with a GED. With mounting criticism from advocacy groups and key policymakers, the U.S. Department of Education recently sent states a “Dear Colleague” letter to clarify that the 2008 regulations are still in effect.

However, actions speak louder than words, and the Department has not required any state to modify its waiver plan if it undermines the intent of the 2008 regulations. They should – and there is already a model for how to do it. The Department successfully negotiated with Virginia to adopt new, more rigorous goals for minority and disadvantaged students after their initial performance targets sparked a public controversy. Without getting serious about graduation rate accountability, the 2008 regulations will remain half-baked. States will know how bad the problem is, but they won’t be creating a policy environment in which schools are motivated to fix it.

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