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Archived chat: The straight story on high school graduation rates

How many American students are actually earning a high school diploma? With new reports out this week by the National Center for Education Statistics and Education Week, the answer depends on who's crunching the numbers. Some say 70 percent, others say it's closer to 83 percent, while the U.S. Census reports that it's 75 percent. The differences are even greater between what some states report and other analysts calculate, a difference that can be more than 20 percentage points. Find out why the experts disagree and what you can do at the local level to calculate graduation rates that tell the whole story. Patte Barth, director of NSBA's Center for Public Education, answered questions about these and related issues addressed in a new CPE report on Thursday, June 22, 2006.

A school district administrator from Kansas City, Missouri asks:

Can a student take more than four years to complete high school and not be counted as a drop out?
Patte Barth writes:

This is a key question. The rates that are widely reported are four-year completion rates. The important thing to keep in mind is that they do not include students who take more than four years to earn a standard diploma, or who earn GED or alternate certificates. Many, however, are drop outs.
A school board member from Upper Freehold Regional District, Allentown, NJ asks:

What is the value of national statistics if systems for gathering this data are incompatible or inconsistent? Wouldn't graduation rates by state be more accurate and informative? State-by-state comparisons might better highlight problems in gathering this data, the differences between state funding systems, socioeconomic conditions, administrative approaches, and curriculum and instruction.
Patte Barth writes:

The biggest problem with getting good grad rates is that we do not have consistent data collection across the country. The best way to understand grad rates is to look at individual student records. We don't have this data nationally, and few states collect it. The next best way, then, is to estimate the number of graduates based on the number of 9th graders enrolled four years previously.
A school board member from Winnsboro South Carolina asks:

I commend you on your effort to set the record straight on this matter. Please provide empirical data which give facts as to the numbers over the last three years: 1. Graduates who received diplomas 2. Graduates who received certificates 3. Graduates who were considered special needs who received certificates as opposed to those who were not who received certificates. In order for us to address the problem, we need to have accurate data and admit the status. Again, I commend us on the effort.
Patte Barth writes:

Nationally, according to many four-year estimates about 70% of our students are earning standard diplomas in four years. We don't have good data on the proportion of students who take longer than 4 years, or who earn alternate certificates or GEDs. One study of the Class of 1992 shows that 78% earned a standard diploma on time. By the year 2000, the proportion had increased to 83% and an additional 9% with GEDs. This is from the National Educational Longitudinal Study. Your third question on special needs students: Policies about this group of students varies considerably by state. Some earn diplomas, some certificates of attendance. They can also vary by students according to their IEPs. You should be able to get this information from your state department. Keep in mind that the proportion of these special diplomas should be relatively small.
A state school board association staff member from Helena, MT asks:

If you base graduation rate on the number of 9th graders from 4 years previous, don't you artificially lower the graduation rate for students who transfer, go to a private school, go to home school, etc?
Patte Barth writes:

It's important to note that these numbers are estimates and there are many ways of developing formulas to calculate them. Some, such as Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institute, make adjustments for changes in the student population and should therefore account for the students you mention to some degree. The interesting thing, however, is that despite the various formulas for estimating four-year completion rates, the numbers are very similar ... generally within 2 to 3 percentage points of 70%.
An individual from Park City UT asks:

Are you saying that we are not really tracking individual students but using the number of graduates and the number of 9th graders 4 years earlier even though they may not be the exact same students?
Patte Barth writes:

Yes, this is correct. Analysts use these estimates because at present it is the only way to calculate comparable rates across 50 different state systems. The National Governors Association has drafted a Compact that all 50 states have signed agreeing to use similar formulas for computing grad rates and to develop student tracking systems so that we will get better, more accurate data about who is graduating, and what is happening to students who aren't earning diplomas in four years. Again, keep in mind that few states have this capacity at present and it may take several years before all states can do this. However, at the local level, you don't have wait for your state to begin to look at better ways of monitoring student graduation.
An individual from Iowa asks:

Are states required to maintain statistics on the number/percentage of students who start ninth grade and graduate from twelfth grade? Where can we find these statistics?
Patte Barth writes:

No Child Left Behind requires states to calculate and report high school graduation rates. The rates are for standard diplomas only that are earned in four years. You can find this information in your state's AYP report.
A school board member from Brunswick, OH asks:

What are we trying to prove by the graduation rates? Are comparisons between states valid when all states do not have the same requirements for graduation? Why shouldn't a student who took 5 years to complete HS be counted?
Patte Barth writes:

The meaning of a high school diploma today is an absolute minimum preparation for adult life. It's important not just to the individual students, but to our communities to make sure young people are able to be productive and earn a living wage. Graduation requirements do vary by state as you point out, but research is clear that the credential has more value than not having a diploma at all. It is imperfect but a still useful comparison to use across states. On your question about students who take more than 4 years to complete: One problem is getting good data, so we really don't know how many students are taking longer. Some research further suggests that students who take longer are less likely to attend and/or complete college. However, I agree that we should recognize these achievements. And the NGA Compact recommends collecting this data and reporting it as a complement to the 4-year grad rate.
A state school board association staff member from W. Sacramento, CA asks:

What about the disparity in graduation rates amongst various ethnic groups? The differences in reporting of these rates can be huge.
Patte Barth writes:

Different researchers cite different ranges for the racial gap in diplomas. However, they all agree that it is large and we need to pay attention to it. The most optimistic estimate shows about one in four Black or Hispanic students are not completing on time.
An individual from Park City UT asks:

Are the grad rates that NCLB requires and that can be found in individual state's AYP reports calculated on the basic formula stated earlier or are individual states allowed to submit that rate based on their own form of calculation?
Patte Barth writes:

States are allowed to submit their own formulas for grad rates within NCLB's general guidelines. This means that you cannot compare NCLB grad rates across states.
A school board member from Franklin, Wi asks:

How does the system account for expelled students who don't return after expulsion?
Patte Barth writes:

According to the National Governors Association Compact, the only students excluded from the calculation are students who transferred with a requesting transcript, went to prison, or died. (I apologize for the ghoulishness of these regs.)
A state school board association staff member from W. Sacramento, CA asks:

What is the best approach for board members to take in communicating with their communities about the disparities in graduation rate reporting?
Patte Barth writes:

The best thing you can do is to understand how your state and your district are calculating and reporting graduation rates, and understand it well enough to explain it to non-statisticians. Also, emphasize who is included and who is not. You should also look at the four-year estimates that some of the researchers are reporting and compare your local numbers to those to see how close they are (a list of resources is published on the Center for Public Education web site at  www.centerforpubliceducation.org)
A principal from Rhode Island asks:

What is the NCLB formula for graduation rates?
Patte Barth writes:

There isn't really a formula, only guidelines: The rates should be for four years and include only standard diplomas or better (e.g., advanced diplomas). Check with your state department to find out more about your state's rate.
A school board member from Anchorage, Alaska asks:

Whether the "correct" graduation rate is 70% or 85%, the rate is way too low. Instead of arguing over the measurement method, shouldn't we be trying to fix the problem and how can we do that?
Patte Barth writes:

We agree. But it is important to get the complete picture of high school graduation -- including those who don't earn a diploma -- so we can plan and work to improve the rates. A grad rate is a diagnosis not a cure.

Thank you very much for participating in our online discussion today. You all asked great questions! To learn more about grad rates and other issues, visit us at  www.centerforpubliceducation.org where a guide to grad rates is posted. This discussion will also be posted to the Center and in BoardBuzz archives.
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