The No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization in Congress and under assault from many quarters. The federal law has many weaknesses, but some ideas should be preserved. One of them is a uniform way for states to calculate graduation rates.
In 2005, the National Governors Association agreed that a consistent calculation would provide a better picture of the challenges school systems face in lowering the number of dropouts. The U.S. Department of Education recently released its guidelines and they are sensible. The formula is:
“Number of cohort members who earned a regular high school diploma by the end of the 2011-2012 school year divided by the number of first-time 9th graders in fall 2008 (starting cohort) plus students who transfer in, minus students who transfer out, emigrate, or die during school years 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012.”
Ninth grade was chosen as the starting point, because many students drop out that year, giving states that begin calculations in the sophomore year a false sense of success. States will also be able to calculate five-year and six-year rates, but the four-year totals will be the baseline for state-to-state comparisons and accountability to the federal government.
Before this rule was issued, states were able to choose their methods for calculating graduation rates, which resulted in widely divergent results. States have an obvious interest in putting the best face on the dropout problem, so many would finagle the numbers. As the New York Times reported this year, New Mexico counts the percentage of enrolled 12th-graders, which erases all the students who dropped out before their final year. Using the formula preferred by feds, New York’s rate would be 35 percent, but its reported rate is 23 percent.
Numerous studies have shown the benefits to students and to society in seeing that they get a diploma. In 2006, the unemployment rate for dropouts 25 and older was 50 percent higher than that of high school graduates, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. For the same group, median pay for graduates was 32 percent higher. Dropouts are much more likely to land in jail at some point.
However, the feds must be careful that the rules themselves don’t exacerbate the dropout problem. If the targets are unrealistic and the punishment for low graduation rates is too severe, states will treat low performing students as liabilities, rather than individuals in need of help. For fear of losing federal funding, states could try to avoid at-risk students or eliminate them from the system, which defeats the purpose of no child being left behind.
The focus should be on preventing dropouts, not hiding them. A standard calculation is a good start.