Ross Wiener, policy director of The Education Trust, on the National Governors Association Graduation Counts Compact Progress Report
(Washington, D.C.) - In 2005, all 50 governors made an unprecedented commitment to provide educators, policymakers and the public with much-needed information about one of the most critical indicators of success for our public education system — high school graduation rates. But a report out today updating the public on the implementation of that agreement is a reminder of how much work remains to accurately account for the students who graduate from American high schools.
The report, issued by the National Governors Association, reveals three serious problems with the way states are carrying out their commitment to improve high school graduation data.
First, most states have not moved to make the graduation-rate definition agreed to by their governors part of official state policy.
Second, most states aren’t taking the necessary actions to start reporting more accurate graduation rates right now. Instead, most are waiting for more sophisticated longitudinal data systems — which in some cases are years away from being up and running — before taking any steps to improve graduation-rate data.
Third, even among states where better data are being produced, some still plan to use inaccurate numbers for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind law.
Codifying the Compact
Since the Compact was signed, only two states have moved to formally adopt the Compacts graduation-rate definition into state policy. Led by a coalition of African-American and Latino legislators, Maryland adopted comprehensive new legislation to carry out all of the commitments of the governors’ agreement. In Colorado, the state board of education issued new regulations adopting the Compacts graduation-rate definition. More states should follow the lead of Maryland and Colorado.
Development of longitudinal data systems that track individual students over time is critically important - not just for graduation-rate purposes but for understanding, evaluating and improving public education.
Unfortunately, many states are waiting until they have these systems in place before providing more accurate data. This approach ignores states ability (and their obligation under the Compact) to begin immediately reporting better estimates. States can and should use school-level data that is already collected — on enrollment, diploma recipients, and transfers in and out — to start calculating graduation rates according to the Compact definition. Colorado and South Carolina are doing just that. Other states should follow their lead and not let the pursuit of ever-better data systems serve as an excuse to postpone reporting better data.
In addition, states also need to take immediate steps to train local officials in proper data collection and reporting techniques and to establish auditing protocols to catch problems in local reporting.
Taking a Pass on Accountability
Ultimately, the goal is not just to get more accurate data, its about identifying the schools that are losing far too many of their students, getting them some help, and holding schools systems accountable for graduating students. So, it is deeply disturbing that among the states that report they are using the Compact definition, some still are not planning to use the new, more accurate information for high school accountability under NCLB. Rather, they intend to continue using discredited data for determining whether high schools are making progress.
Producing better data, but not using it for accountability purposes, means that public schools dont have to act on the new information, even if it reveals much lower graduation rates than previously reported. Moreover, using two different sets of graduation rates will further undermine public educations credibility, especially among communities whose dropouts have been under-counted and mostly ignored.
The U.S. Department of Education should not continue to countenance states bad behavior. For years now, the Department has allowed states to report inaccurate graduation-rate data with no consequence. The Department should confront and fix this problem by advising states immediately that they can use the Compact definition for NCLB purposes. Then, the Department should follow-up by issuing regulations requiring states to move to the Compact definition or to prove that their alternative is more accurate.
When Congress reauthorizes NCLB, it should make the Compact definition part of the law. The law also should require the development and maintenance of longitudinal data systems and should provide resources to support these efforts.
Ultimately, we have to get past issues of data collection and on to the business of actually changing outcomes for young people. Any serious improvement strategy, however, has to start with accurate reporting so that problems can be prioritized and progress measured.
While the governors Compact represents a commitment to make progress in this area, one year later its potential remains unrealized. The need, however, remains urgent, and all parties need to get back to business on creating accurate, comparable graduation rates on which the public can rely.