Graduation Matters: How NCLB allows states to set the bar too low for improving high school grad rates

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Publication date: 
August 1 2007 (All day)

WASHINGTON (August 1, 2007) – Despite the national focus on reforming America’s high schools, most states are setting woefully low goals for improving graduation rates and are not setting goals for ensuring that more low-income, minority, disabled and English language learner students graduate, according to a report released today by The Education Trust. 

Graduation Matters: Improving Accountability for High School Graduation documents state-set goals for graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, showing how improvement targets are often so low that they undercut the aim of significantly raising graduation rates. 

“One in four students who start ninth grade will not earn a diploma four years later, and the picture is even worse for low-income students and students of color,”  said Daria Hall, Assistant Director for K-12 Policy at The Education Trust, and the report’s author. “Because current graduation rates are so low, we need targets that provoke action on behalf of students, not ones that condone the status quo.”

Under the NCLB accountability provisions known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), U.S. high schools must meet state goals for educating all students in reading and math as well as graduating them on time. While the AYP provisions are explicit about procedures for setting proficiency targets in math and reading, the discretion the law gives states in setting graduation-rate goals and improvement targets has resulted in a wide range of expectations, as demonstrated in the report.

For example, overall goals for graduation rates range from 95 percent in both Indiana and Iowa to 50 percent in Nevada. But even the most ambitious goals are undercut by improvement targets that are far too low. In fact, some states have set targets as low as one-tenth of one percent, and others have asked merely whether graduation rates have stayed the same – consigning students to attending schools that are not identified for any support or intervention, even in cases where graduating is a 50-50 proposition.    

“If we are serious about reforming our high schools, we have to get serious about meaningful accountability for student success in completing high school,” said Ross Wiener, Vice President of The Education Trust. “While progress may not come as quickly as we’d like, the improvements we’ve seen in New York City show us that, even under some of the most challenging circumstances, real change is possible.”

According to the report, New York City has significantly improved its graduation rates over the last two years. And, while the district’s rates are still far too low, the gains that have been made since 2004 resulted in more than 3,000 more African American and Latino students leaving New York City high schools in 2006 with a diploma in hand.

As low as state graduation rate goals may be, unlike accountability for reading and math achievement, NCLB only requires that high school graduation rate goals and improvement targets apply to overall averages, not to student groups.

“By choosing to hold schools accountable only for overall graduation rates, policymakers are turning a blind eye to the persistent gaps that we know exist between poor and non-poor and White and minority student groups,” said Hall. “But, we also know that it doesn’t have to be this way.”  

Massachusetts, a recognized leader in holding its schools accountable for meeting high standards, takes responsibility for the graduation of low-income and minority students by going beyond what NCLB requires and applying its graduation rate goal to all student groups – not just the overall average – when making AYP determinations for high schools. Because of that decision, attention will be called to the performance of the low-income students and students of color who struggle most – an important first step in getting the support needed to the schools they attend.

Rather than being viewed as exceptions to the rule, the stories from New York City and Massachusetts are prime examples for federal and state policymakers of what is possible for both real improvement and meaningful accountability throughout the U.S. The Education Trust report provides recommendations for policy changes at both the federal and state levels, including the following priorities for NCLB reauthorization:

 

  • Crafting meaningful graduation-rate accountability provisions in the law and providing high schools with a greater share of the federal investment in education so they have more resources to meet ambitious improvement goals;
  • Targeting federal investments to improve high school curriculum and assessments; and
  • Better directing funds and interventions toward the lowest performing schools to ensure that high-poverty and high-minority schools get their fair share of the tools they need to be successful – strong teachers, high standards and high-quality curriculum and assessments.
  • “The pending reauthorization of NCLB provides a critical opportunity to translate local successes into legislative goals for the rest of the nation,” said Wiener. “We need to send a strong signal to high schools that we are willing to do what it takes to help them improve.”

    Graduation Matters: Improving Accountability for High School Graduation can be found online at http://www.edtrust.org.

    About The Education Trust
    The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth. Our basic tenet is this — all children will learn at high levels when they are taught to high levels. For more information, visit http://www.edtrust.org.