Thumb On The Scale: High School Graduation Rates

May 20, 2008 | Blog

Saturday’s editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal – a daily newspaper serving Madison (for you non-Badgers) – is merely the latest calling for consistency and transparency in the public reporting of high school graduation and dropout rates. In this version, Wisconsin is the whipping boy for inflating its graduation rate. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction says it’s 91.2%, while the U.S. Department of Education says it’s 85.8%, and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center says it’s 77.3%.

Back in 2005, under the leadership of then-National Governors Association (NGA) Chairman and Virginia Governor Mark Warner, the nation’s Governors signed onto a Compact that called for a consistent measure for calculating high school graduation rates. Specifically, the Graduation Counts Compact calls for “a standard, four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. States agree to calculate the graduation rate by dividing the number of on-time graduates in a given year by the number of first-time entering ninth graders four years earlier.” Joining the Governors in supporting this approach were national organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Education Trust. Despite that seemingly high level of consensus, a number of states continue to conduct business as usual.

There are some honest reasons for this, such as the inability of state data systems to track students who transfer schools, districts, and even states and separate them from those who drop out of school completely. Some states are continuing to overcome this obstacle. In addition, many Governors don’t control their state department of education and can’t snap their fingers and make this happen. Further, more than a dozen of the Governors who signed this compact three years ago are no longer in office. However, the NGA is working to ensure that governors who have taken office since 2005 agree to the compact’s terms.

There’s most certainly some bureaucratic heel-dragging going on and politics at foot. In fact, two states–North Dakota and South Dakota–have dropped out of the compact all together.

Nonetheless, some progress has occurred. According to a 2006 NGA report, 13 states reported their graduation rate according to the Compact formula; two states used the Compact formula with local cohort data; and one state reported a sophisticated estimate consistent with the recommendations. By 2010, 39 states planned to report a graduation rate using the Compact definition. Two states have even codified the Compact rate: Colorado did so through state board regulations and Maryland through legislation.

On April 1st of this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued proposed regulations that would require all states and high schools to use the NGA-proposed high school graduation rate calculation by 2011. This action may impel recalcitrant states to get off the dime.

This issue clearly isn’t liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. If we truly are going to put the interests of students first, we need to capture accurately the magnitude of this problem. Perhaps doing so would impel policymakers to take more seriously their duty to reform high schools and support the teachers and administrators who staff them. Currently, too many high school dropouts are forgotten within data reporting systems much as they are forgotten by the school systems that serve them poorly.

If we can’t honestly collect and report basic data about the education policy issues we’re trying to address, why even bother with data or research at all? Let’s manage and legislate based on whims and fancies—and blatantly false perceptions. At least we’ll feel good.


For those of you craving more on this topic, check out this 2006 report from the NGA Center for Best Practices, this April 2008 policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education or this August 2007 brief from The Education Trust.


  1. Reply

    Sherman Dorn

    May 20, 2008

    I don't think Congress has to approve the draft regulations. Somehow, my comments were the first of all submitted on the regs, but anyone can submit comments online.

  2. Reply

    Liam Goldrick

    May 20, 2008

    Sherman, you are correct. My bad. Thanks for the catch. I've edited the original post.

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