No Child Left Behind: How Do We Know If We're Not Tracking?

No Child Left Behind: How Do We Know If We're Not Tracking?

As the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., focused on changing federal policy to better support effective secondary school reform, I often find myself citing facts that people find surprising almost to the point of disbelief. At the top of the list is the shocking truth that American educators do not know exactly how many of our students are actually graduating from high school.

After all, if Federal Express can track a package from the moment it's picked up until it's delivered, shouldn't we be able to track our students from the moment they enter school until they leave it? Aren't schools keeping track? Aren't they required to keep track? Where do the numbers that are released annually by local and state governments about their graduation rates come from?

There are many reasons why we don't have this information. Chief among them is that, for years, individual states have been allowed to use their own methods to calculate graduation rates. To a degree, this method depends on the accuracy of the data available, and many states are hampered by systems that are unable to reliably collect and report student data. As a result, states have been forced to estimatetheir graduation rates rather than calculatethem.

Moreover, states are free to define "graduation." For example, in some states, the GED counts as a high school diploma, which suggests the two are equivalent. They are not. The academic standards for the GED are lower, and those who pass the test face economic challenges similar to those of a high school dropout, including a lifetime of lower wages.

Record-keeping accuracy, or lack thereof, is another factor. Students leave a school or school system for a host of reasons, many of which are legitimate and should not be considered dropping out. They may transfer to another school, for example, or they may enter an alternative education program, like the GED certification. Some students, having completed their course requirements early, may go from high school to college without waiting to be awarded a diploma. What remains consistent, however, is that most schools don't know where their students have gone when they stop showing up for classes, and many have the option of arbitrarily designating them as a "transfer."

Indeed, some states only consider a student to have dropped out if the student has come into the school office and signed a sheet of paper signifying that he or she is dropping out. Realistically, though, how many students are going to take the time or energy to make that trip and sign that form?

Over the past several years, independent researchers such as Christopher Swanson of Editorial Projects in Education and Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research have conducted studies to determine a more precise and consistent picture of the nation's graduation rate by, among other methods, defining "graduation" more accurately. According to their calculations, only about 70 percent of students nationwide who enter ninth grade will graduate in four years with a regular diploma, a figure accepted by the majority of the education community to be reasonably reliable. But the disparity between their estimates and the state-reported rates is usually another source of surprise. The state of Texas, for example, reports an 84.6 percent graduation rate, while independent researchers put the figure at 67.3 percent.

Why does an accurate and commonly used graduation rate calculation matter? Because significant improvements are impossible without this data. Without accurate measures of how many students are graduating and how long they are taking to achieve a diploma, we have no way to design policies and practices that will benefit them. We also have no way of determining whether we are directing limited resources to the schools and students who need them most.

The nation's governors agree. In the summer of 2005, all fifty signed the National Governors Association's Graduation Rate Compact, committing to implement a common, accurate graduation rate and to create better data collection and analysis systems. In 2006, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich signed into law legislation introduced by Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez and State Sen. Gwendolyn Britt that made Maryland the first state to codify the NGA Compact.

Members of Congress have stepped forward to lead the charge, as well: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Every Student Counts Act this year. A version of that legislation also was introduced on the Senate side by Tom Harkin (D-IA). Both bills seek to hold high schools responsible for graduating students by improving the calculation of and accountability for high school graduation rates, using a common and accurate graduation rate calculation.

More progress was made recently when U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, as part of long-awaited regulations to strengthen the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), called for a uniform graduation rate calculation. One more surprise: NCLB requires schools to improve their test scores but not their graduation rates. Each state sets its own bar, and many set it surprisingly low. In fact, twenty-nine states allow any improvement at all to count. Although the states will still establish their own improvement goals under the new regulations, requiring schools to provide a fair and accurate assessment of their graduation rates using a common and consistent formula means that policy makers, educators, and the public will finally have a truer picture of where education stands in this country.

Even though we may not know for sure how many of our students are graduating from high school yet we do know it is imperative that all students graduate prepared for success. I am bullish that the high school dropout crisis is one we can solve and soon. We must. Keeping our students in school and helping them to earn a meaningful diploma that arms them with high-quality skills will have a direct positive effect on our nation's security, health, well-being, and economy.

Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia, is the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy, research, and advocacy organization that works to make every child a graduate, prepared for postsecondary education and success in life. His book Raising the Grade: How High School Reform Can Save Our Youth and Our Nation, was published this year by Jossey-Bass.