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A Blog from New America's Federal Education Budget Project

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New, More Accurate Statewide Graduation Rates Released by Department of Education

Published:  November 28, 2012

This week, the U.S. Department of Education released the first comparable, statewide high school on-time graduation rates. The results from the 2010-2011 school year show more students failed to complete high school in four years than was previously thought, especially when examined by subgroup.

The Bush administration’s Department of Education mandated the new measure – the adjusted four-year cohort graduate rate – in 2008, so states reported data from their first cohort this year. This year’s rates, therefore, refer to students who were 9th graders in 2008 and earned a high school diploma within four years, with adjustments for students who transferred in and transferred out to other high schools. Idaho, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico did not report 2011 graduation rates; they were granted extensions because their data systems are not yet sophisticated enough to accurately calculate the new graduation rate. Previously, states defined their own version of the graduation rate calculation, and many students slipped through the cracks, inflating the graduation rates.

As the data from the Department show, the now-comparable graduation rate calculation often yields far more concerning results than did previous reports. Overall, the District of Columbia had the lowest all-student graduation rate under the new formula at 59 percent, and no state topped an 88 percent graduation rate (Iowa). Alabama’s state-determined graduation rate in 2010 was 87.7 percent; its adjusted rate in 2011 was 72 percent, a nearly 16 percentage point drop for students. New Jersey’s rate fell by almost 12 points from nearly 95 percent in 2010 (using the state-defined rate) to 83 percent under the new calculation.  

In addition to providing comparable data, the 2008 regulation continued what No Child Left Behind (arguably) did best: disaggregating student performance data by subgroup. The new data also provide the first comparable graduation rates for racial and ethnic groups, as well as for special populations like English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. As with standardized test data, the new graduation rate reporting has also revealed large achievement gaps within states.

The disparities among ethnic groups are striking. In Ohio, for example, 80 percent of students overall graduated on time, compared to only 59 percent of African-American students – a 22 percentage point difference. And even in states with large Hispanic populations, like Colorado, those students had a graduation rate 14 points below the overall graduation rate of 60 percent for all students.

Moreover, other sub-populations had abysmally low graduation rates. Only a quarter of Arizona’s English language learners and only 29 percent of Louisiana’s special education students graduated on time. Low-income students were documented as graduating at lower rates in nearly every state in the country, with the exception of South Dakota. In Connecticut, the difference in graduation rates for low-income students was more than 20 percentage points.

Under the No Child Left Behind waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Education this year, states designed new accountability plans – and in some cases, that means a renewed focus on graduation rate definitions, as some states modify their graduation rate accountability requirements. But whether states choose to use a different graduation rate in their NCLB waivers or not, they will still be required to report the new adjusted cohort rate, both overall and disaggregated by subgroups, at the state, school district, and high school levels. Check back with Ed Money Watch next week for more detail on this topic.

The new graduation rate data aren’t perfect – multiple states didn’t even report this year, and we don’t have any prior-year data to evaluate trends yet – but they reflect a much more accurate take of how high school students fare. The figures states reported should serve as a warning to education stakeholders that states are not serving many of their students, and particularly some of the highest-needs students, well enough.

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