Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose

Daria Hall, Education Trust
June 2005

No doubt about it: this Education Trust report is a devastating indictment of state reporting of high-school graduation rates. No Child Left Behind requires, inter alia, that states report their graduation rates to the U.S. Department of Education. The latest round of those reports, due by January 31, 2005, covered the 2002-3 school year. (Baseline data for 2001-2 were reported in September 2003; to see what EdTrust and Gadfly thought of those, go here.)

 

The results are dismaying, to say the least, the more so at a time when high-school reform is supposedly the top education priority of the Bush administration and the National Governors Association. "[I]n far too many cases," says Ms. Hall,

the information [the states] reported is of little value to school-improvement efforts. In fact, three states [Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, plus D.C.] reported no graduation-rate data at all. Another seven did not report data broken down by students' race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Of the states that did provide graduation-rate information, most reported rates look dubiously high when compared to the results of multiple independent analyses of state graduation rates.

Those independent analyses include reports by the Manhattan Institute, the Urban Institute and the ETS Policy Information Center, among others. EdTrust settles on the Urban Institute's "cumulative promotion index" as an external audit of state graduation rates, and finds that it is lower than the state-reported results in every single case: by as little as 1-3 percent (Idaho, Washington, Alaska, New Jersey) and by as much as 27-33 percent (New Mexico and the Carolinas). North Carolina, for example, reported to the feds a graduation rate of 97 percent while the Urban Institute estimates that the state's true graduation rate is more like 64 percent.

In the middle of the pack, with 13-14 point discrepancies, are states like Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio, which reported graduation rates of 92 percent, 66 percent, and 84 percent respectively vs. Urban Institute estimates of 65, 53, and 71 percent.

Some states, moreover, reported incredible gains in graduation rates from spring 2002 to spring 2003. If you believe the data, for example, Nevada rose from 64 to 75 percent in a single year while Oklahoma's rate soared from 69 to 86 percent.

A few states, EdTrust says, deserve plaudits for tackling the challenge of honest graduation rate reporting - they cite Alaska and Washington in particular - and others are working on it. Meanwhile, however, many jurisdictions (which have wide latitude in this regard) have set outrageously low NCLB graduation targets - in 34 cases lower than their current graduation rates. And, asserts EdTrust, the slack wording of NCLB in this regard plus vagueness, inconsistency and excessive deference by the U.S. Department of Education have allowed these outrages to occur and to continue.

Get this report and read it. You can find it online here.

"North Carolina's near perfect graduation rate, and other fables," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 28, 2005

"Report: States nationwide inflate graduation rates," by Bonnie Eslinger, San Francisco Examiner, June 26, 2005

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