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Professional Opinion

Straight Talk on Graduation Rates

Accurate graduation rates are essential measures of high school performance.

Accurate graduation rates are essential measures of high school performance

THIS MAY AND JUNE HIGH school seniors across the country will be walking across the stage to pick up their diplomas. They will then be official high school graduates with their futures in front of them.

But few of these graduating seniors have a clue about how controversial the walk across the stage and the entire graduation process has become. While the newly minted graduates are pondering which graduation party to attend, school administrators are poring over data to determine the school's graduation rate.

There is a huge debate swirling in the education community about how many students actually earn a diploma. It may sound like just another arcane discussion among education researchers, but in reality, the rate of students who graduate is one of the best indicators of a high school's performance. And today a high school diploma is the basic qualification for survival.

Non-Diploma Earnings Gap

High school diplomas are even more important in the United States than elsewhere, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD says that American adults ages 25 to 64 who have not completed high school earn only 65 cents for every dollar earned by a high school graduate. This earnings gap was the greatest among all OECD countries. In addition, those who lack a high school diploma are more likely to earn below-average wages and are more likely to be unemployed.

So offering a complete picture of graduation rates is important. Various national reports place the high school graduation rate as low as 70 percent and as high as 83 percent. The state picture is equally confusing: 36 states report rates between 80 and 97 percent, while another report saysthat the same 36 states have rates between 56 and 86 percent.

"About one in five students is not earning a standard diploma on time."

According to the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education, which recently published a guide to graduation rates, even the most optimistic national estimate means that about one in five students is not earning a standard diploma on time. For minorities, the statistics are even worse. The range varies, but an estimate is that one in four black and Hispanic students is not graduating.

Reporting More Reliable Data

The problem is that neither school districts nor states have adequate methods to collect and report reliable information on graduation rates. Many districts base the rate on the number of students entering 12th grade in the fall, which fails to account for students who may have left earlier.

The National Governors Association recommends a method for calculating and reporting graduation rates that all 50 states have agreed to put in place. The states must develop a high quality data collection system that tracks individual students from kindergarten through college. The problem is that only a handful of states have an electronic record-keeping system that can track students from kindergarten to high school. It could take years for all of the states to get their systems in place.

School district leaders do not need to wait until the states have implemented the Governors Association plan. In fact, with the pressures of the No Child Left Behind law, district leaders could find it nearly impossible to wait years for accurate high school graduation rates.

Instead, school districts can start making their own changes right now. One of the most important steps is to get a handle on the data and how they are collected, analyzed and reported. It is important to know if the data cover all four years of high school and how they account for students who leave. The Governors Association commends taking the number of graduates and dividing it by the number of students in school four years ago, then adding the transfers in and subtracting the transfers out to get the graduation rate.

School districts have to strengthen their documentation system. Districts should know the status of each student. Is he/she a transfer from out of state? Is he/ she moving out of the district and going to a new school? Improving the data collection system will lead to more accurate graduation rates.

Finally, school leaders should communicate with community leaders and elected officials about the steps they are taking to improve the collection of data and the reporting of graduation rates. Getting on top of the issue and taking responsibility to provide a complete picture of graduation rates are critical to maintaining community support for the schools.

Anne L. Bryant is executive director of the National School Boards Association.