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Graduation Rates Need to Count: 5 Questions for States with NCLB Waivers

In 2008, federal regulations for the first time required measurement of and progress on more accurate cohort graduation rates in every state for each subgroup of students. Although the U.S. Department of Education has informed states that these regulations still apply under NCLB waivers, for the 34 states (and DC) with waivers from No Child Left Behind, graduation rate accountability now looks very different than under NCLB, and there is a risk that the 2008 regulations will not hold as much weight as they do under NCLB.

As Education Week reported in October, many education policy advocates are urging the Department to strengthen graduation rate accountability for these states, including: the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Education Trust, and the New America Foundation.

But while the federal government decides how to proceed, it is critical that states step up on their own and proactively monitor and effectively use their cohort graduation rate data, regardless of their accountability structures. JFF has identified five key questions that all states can answer immediately—with data already at their fingertips—to help ensure that their graduation rate accountability systems and overall accountability systems are promoting college and career readiness AND graduation from high school.

  1. Do “school report cards” on state and district websites clearly and prominently display cohort graduation rate outcomes and progress toward yearly graduation rate targets, for all students and for each subgroup?
  2. If a subgroup does not meet its annual cohort graduation rate targets for two years in a row, does your state/district mandate reform action?
  3. Can your school(s) meet targets or excel on the state’s accountability system even if its cohort graduation rate for any subgroup stagnates or decreases?
  4. If your state’s accountability index/system includes dropout rates, can your school(s) meet or exceed annual performance targets without increasing their graduation rates?
  5. Is there a large gap between the number of “priority” or “focus” schools in your state/district and the number of schools with cohort graduation rates below 60%?

Highlighting cohort graduation rate accountability is imperative to making visible trends and gaps that might otherwise be overlooked—and it can all be done with the data already available under NCLB and waivers.

We hope that states, districts, and the U.S. Department of Education will include these questions in their toolboxes as they work to uphold the promise of reforms that increase the college and career readiness and graduation of all students. While new NCES data shows an increase in national graduation rates in the most recent year (2010), we still lose at least 22% of all students, and major gaps between students exist. Students who do not graduate from high school are at a severe economic disadvantage compared to their peers who graduate and who go on to further education. In an era where high school and college success matter, our country cannot afford for schools to take a step back from increasing graduation among all students.

Kathryn Young is JFF's national education policy director. Follow her on Twitter

Note: Questions in this brief are based, in part, on conversations with Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools; and on Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenges in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic (2013 update forthcoming).