New Graduation-Rate Data Show the Power of Advocacy, Remind Us of Work Ahead

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It’s encouraging when years of advocacy in pursuit of educational equity begin to pay off. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released state-level data on the four-year adjusted-cohort graduation rate for the high school graduating class of 2011. The occasion marks the first time all states were required to use the same method to calculate data they report for all groups of students. It also is the result of tireless advocacy by numerous parties across the education landscape that fought to draw attention to inaccurate calculation methods and worked with states to help them adopt more precise methods of reporting the data. Now that we finally have a clearer picture of who is graduating in four years, the hard work of raising graduation rates for all groups of students lies ahead.

Previously, there was no common standard for how the rates were calculated, which resulted in many states obscuring the reality that far too many of their young people weren’t graduating. In the past, students who earned GEDs were counted as “graduates” by some states. Other states computed their graduation rates by comparing the number of high school seniors enrolled in the fall to the number who graduated the following spring instead of starting with the number of students who began with the class as high school freshmen. Calculating the rate based only on students who enrolled in the fall of senior year does not account for students who dropped out of school or were retained in earlier grades.

The new adjusted-cohort graduation rate looks at how many first-time ninth-graders graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma. It doesn’t include students who earn another credential, like a GED, or who take more than four years to graduate. The new rate also adjusts for students who transfer into the school and for those who transfer out of the school, move to another country, or die. Having an honest and  common measure now allows parents, communities, policymakers, and practitioners to  better understand how well, or how poorly, their schools are doing and to compare graduation rates across state lines, revealing a wide range of overall graduation rates across the states: from 62 percent in Nevada to 88 percent in Iowa.

The new measure also shows glaring gaps. In nearly every state, black and Latino students graduate at lower rates than their white peers, but the graduation rates of black and Latino students vary widely state to state. In Texas, for instance, 81 percent of African-American students graduate, compared to less than half of their counterparts in Minnesota and Nevada. And for Latino students, graduation rates range from over 80 percent in Texas, Maine, and Indiana to less than 60 percent in states like Georgia, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), all states have had to set targets for improving their graduation rates.  We now have better information on how states perform compared to those targets. Advocates must continue to work closely with states, districts, and schools to support efforts to meet these targets and to hold them accountable if they do not.

— Allison Horowitz