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The New York Sun


Reforming Drop-Out Rates

April 08, 2008

By Jay P. Greene

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently announced that soon states will be required to report their high school graduation rates using a uniform method consistent with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which could substantially improve awareness about the quality of public schools. If enacted properly, this commonsensical change in policy would fix a glaring problem with the federal education mandate and represent a major victory for those interested in public-school transparency.

An unintended consequence of NCLB was that it amplified an already strong incentive for states to inflate their high school graduation rates. While one of the federal law’s strengths was that it required states to meet or make progress toward graduation rate benchmarks, it also allowed states to calculate these rates in any way that they saw fit.

To most, this may not seem like such a problem, because calculating graduation rates should be a simple process that produces an objective answer. Just divide the number of students who graduate by the number who entered high school, and you have the graduation rate, right?

Wrong. Even prior to NCLB, the states had developed several competing methods for calculating high school graduation rates. Many of these methods seem designed to hide more information about the performance of public schools then they disclose.

States have found some creative methods to inflate their results. Until it changed its formula a few years ago, Washington State did not count a student as a dropout unless he had filled out the paperwork necessary to officially withdraw from school. New Mexico’s graduation rate is the percentage of students who enter the 12th grade and leave with a diploma — as if no student drops out of school before his senior year. In short, many states’ official high school graduation estimates bear little connection to reality.

In order to check the state figures, several independent researchers have developed more accurate methods for calculating graduation rates. The differences between the official and independent calculations can be dramatic. The Education Trust compared official state calculations for the class of 2002 to those using an independent method we developed. They found that 24 states, including New York, reported high school graduation rates that were at least 10 percentage points greater than the independent calculation. Some states reported graduation rates that were more than 20 percentage points above the more reasonable mark.

Perhaps in response to these and other similarly embarrassing findings, some states have begun to adopt more reasonable methods. In 2005, nearly all state governors signed on to an agreement to move toward a uniform method quite similar to those developed by independent researchers.

Unfortunately, though, by holding schools accountable for meeting a graduation standard without requiring that they measure their graduation rate properly, NCLB has actually stunted this progress. In fear of NCLB sanctions for low graduation rates, states grew more reluctant to move toward better methods of measurement. At least one state, California, switched to an inflated method in order to meet the NCLB standards. The problem here is not the setting of standards. Rather, the issue is that the easiest way for states to meet those standards, up to now, has been to cheat — and no system of checks and balances was in place to stop them from doing so.

A uniform graduation rate standard could substantially improve public understanding of school quality. Inflated graduation rates mask real problems in education. For instance, under its previous method, North Carolina reported that its high school graduation rate was about 95%, leading the public to believe that things were going quite well. When the state adopted a more stringent method of measurement last year, the truth was finally made known: the graduation rate was actually 68%. North Carolina’s education problems had been hidden from the public. The same is true in many other states.

But Ms. Spellings’s change to NCLB will only help if the agreed-upon rate is grounded in reality. Though all states will be required to adopt a uniform method, the form of that method is not yet known.

If the effect of Ms. Spellings’s change is only to lend respectability to a bad method, then the consequences could be disastrous. Fortunately, the methods developed by independent researchers provide excellent templates for developing the new uniform rate. These methods can be used until states develop the sophisticated tools they need to accurately track individual students over time.

Those interested in reporting accurate high school graduation rates must be vigilant to ensure that the new requirement to adopt a uniform method is administered properly. If it is, then this will be a truly welcome change to NCLB.

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