The estimated percent of the class of 2012 who earned at least a standard diploma in four years:
- All students: 81%
- American Indian/Alaska Native: 68%
- Asian/Pacific Islander: 93%
- African American: 68%
- Hispanic: 76%
- White: 85%
Graduation rates are one of the most important indicators of a school’s success. With good data, the calculation of the rate is simple; divide the number of students who graduate by the number of students who enrolled in high school four years earlier. But states and districts have had a difficult time collecting reliable data; therefore, educators have been using estimates to tell the full story of how many students graduate from high school with a standard diploma within four years. These estimates use federally collected enrollment data to make an approximate calculation of state and local graduation rates. They are not based on retention rates (percent of students who stay in school) or dropout rates (percent of students who leave during a single year).
How to Use the Data
Because not all states have the systems in place to report accurate graduation rates, four-year cohort estimates provide an excellent approximation of the percent of students who graduate on time with a standard diploma.
How the details were measured
The data is reported as the percent of students who leave high school with a standard diploma or better within four years.
Limitations of the data
State and local graduation rates are often misleading because education agencies have a difficult time tracking students and determining if they have transferred or dropped out of school. In response, many educators have been relying on graduation rate estimates that use federal data to approximate the percent of students who receive a standard diploma in four years. Because of the limitations of available federal data, these estimates cannot account for students who transfer to another district and cannot provide estimates at the individual school level. The graduation estimates also don’t look at students who obtain alternative diplomas, like a General Educational Development (GED) diploma or students who take five or six years to graduate. You should keep in mind that the data is an approximate calculation of a graduation rate and examine the results in conjunction with locally gathered data and survey-based estimates.
Key Questions to Ask
How is the state and local graduation rate calculated?
To compare state and local graduation rates to estimates, you need to know how the various local rates are created. When examining local graduate rate methods, it’s important to ask:
- Who counts as a graduate? Some high schools use graduation rates that count all students who complete high school in a given year as graduates, including those who earned alternate diplomas, while others only count students who obtain at least a standard diploma or better. It’s important to understand how the graduation rate accounts for potential graduates. For example, a graduation rate that is based on the number of twelfth graders enrolled the previous fall is likely to produce a much higher rate than one based on the number of ninth graders enrolled four years earlier. This is because students who drop out tend to do so before they reach twelfth grade.
- How does the data system account for students who leave? Understanding what happens to students who leave a school is an important part of calculating its graduation rate. Some data systems count all students who leave school as transfers, which can greatly inflate the graduation rate. Systems also need to account for students who graduated early and late.
- What are the other indicators of high school promotion? While a four-year, cohort graduation rate is the most significant measure of completion, it’s important to also look at complimentary indicators, including dropout rates, students transferring in and out, retention rates, and five- and six-year cohort graduation rates. It’s important to note that that there are various graduation rate estimates that use federal enrollment data, but they all generally produce the same results.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to use four-year graduation rates as part of measuring each high school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and provides guidelines for how to calculate the rates. In an effort to raise high school graduation standards, the AYP provision of the law does not allow students who receive certificates of completion or other non-standard diplomas to be counted as graduates. Still, NCLB gave states significant leeway in calculating graduate rates, and for years, the states used widely differing approaches, often with an eye towards inflating their numbers.
In order to improve the quality of graduation rates and graduation rate data, the National Governors Association (NGA) developed the Graduation Counts Compact. All fifty states have signed the contract, pledging to implement a comprehensive set of data collection and reporting policies that aim to improve high school graduation rates. Among other things, the contract requires that states use a common graduation rate formula, improve local data collection, and develop an electronic record system that follows students from kindergarten through college. The contract also mandates that states track students who receive alternative credentials like GEDs and follow students who graduate in five, six, and seven years. More information on the compact is available in the NGA document, Graduation Counts: A Report of the NGA Task Force on State High School Graduation Data.
If you are interested in comparing your school’s graduation rate against an estimate that relies on federal data, you might consider the Promoting Power Index (PPI). Created by two Johns Hopkins University researchers, the index estimates how well schools keep students until the start of the twelfth grade. It does not estimate how many students graduate—that data is not available at the school level. More information on the PPI is available from the University’s report, What Does Promoting Power Tell Us About the Graduation Gap?
The Center for Public Education recently reviewed the literature on graduation rates and graduation rate estimates and produced a helpful guide to calculating accurate and reliable rates. The Center’s Calculating High School Graduation Rates explains the various formulas and gives recommendations on what educators can do at the local level to improve the reporting and dissemination of data. The Center also recently released a report on how to keep students from dropping out. Keeping Kids in School examines initiatives that help keep high-risk students in school and ways to organize academic programs that minimize the chances a student will drop out.
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- Middle colleges make a difference for struggling high school students in Guildford Co., NC.—Being surrounded by positive role models and a college environment helps these disengaged and disconnected students find a way to shine at Guildford County (NC) middle colleges. The result: This district’s dropout rate has been cut in half.