US pushes states to count graduation rates the same

US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pushes a uniform system to calculate and report rates.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a nation where one-third of high school students – and nearly half of blacks and Hispanics – don't finish high school on time, the US education secretary wants parents and citizens to be able to see which schools, districts, and states are improving their track records.

Until now, states have been using a wide variety of methods to calculate graduation rates. New rules announced this week, including a uniform counting system, are an essential first step toward bolstering the number of students who earn a diploma, many education advocates say.

Currently, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) "operates like a mile race, in which you test the kids every 10th of a mile, but when it comes to the finish line ... nobody keeps score," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington advocacy group. "For the first time, somebody's going to be keeping score."

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Speaking in Detroit, Secretary Margaret Spellings noted that "dropouts from the class of 2007 alone will cost our nation more than $300 billion." Along with the graduation rules, she outlined steps to boost access to tutoring and to restructure schools that have long failed to meet NCLB requirements. "We need to get real about having kids really expected to graduate on time," she said.

The new method parallels one that the National Governors Association (NGA) agreed to on a voluntary basis in 2005. It will show how many students earn a regular high school diploma within four years – taking into account that some transfer schools. It will not include those who leave to take General Educational Development (GED) tests. In some limited exceptions, schools could count students who take longer to graduate – if they are in a program, for instance, where they earn both a high school diploma and college credits.

The rules, to be finalized this fall, would require all states to use this method by 2012-13. The time lag allows states to build data systems to track each student's progress through high school. But starting next school year, states that don't have such systems yet would have to report using another common method called the averaged freshman graduation rate. (Currently at least 13 states use the NGA method, and most others are on track to do so by 2012, says an NGA spokesman.)

Graduation figures will be broken down by racial, socioeconomic, and other categories, so that graduation-rate gaps will be more apparent to the public.

States will have to submit accountability plans that outline graduation goals. NCLB does not set a minimum graduation rate, but state plans must set goals for substantial improvement, a Department of Education staff member says.

Mr. Wise says he'd like to see districts improve their graduation rate at least 2-1/2 percent percentage points a year.

The new graduation rules "will bring more transparency and make it easier for parents and communities to hold their schools and states accountable," says Melissa Lazarín, director of education policy for First Focus, an advocacy arm of America's Promise Alliance, which is supporting summits across the country to address the dropout issue. But Ms. Lazarín is concerned that 2012-13 is too late to start using the data to determine if schools are meeting NCLB adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets.

Nationwide, only 53 percent of black students and 58 percent of Hispanics earn diplomas in four years, compared with 76 percent of whites and 80 percent of Asians, according to a report funded by the Alliance and written by Christopher Swanson of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Congress has brought up graduation issues in various NCLB reauthorization bills, but formal revisions are unlikely before a new president takes office.

One group pushing for a major overhaul is the American Federation of Teachers. "These piecemeal regulatory changes ... don't take into account the needs of students," says AFT executive vice president Antonia Cortese. As standards have been raised for the GED, she says, why shouldn't schools be credited if they help students who opt for that? "That's the overall problem of all of NCLB.... You don't support, but you punish. And that is just not the way we're going to solve the graduation/dropout problem."

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