President Obama put the graduation-rate debate front and center in March, when he noted that the nation's high-school dropout rate had tripled since the 1970s (see here). The media and education community scrambled to react to the president's claim. Some pointed to data showing that graduation rates had remained steady over the past 30 years while others claimed that rates have actually improved. Depending on how you calculate graduation rates, they are all correct.

This variance has been at the crux of the grad-rate debate for the past decade. In 2005, all 50 state governors agreed to move toward a National Governors Association-recommended method for calculating graduation rates. Today, 42 states are either using the method or are rapidly moving to implement it.

Then, in late 2008, the Bush administration issued regulations putting in place a common graduation-rate measure for all states to be used for accountability purposes under Title I by 2011-2012. The Obama administration expressed its support of this common measure earlier this year.

Beginning in 2010, states will use a four-year adjusted cohort rate that is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate by the number of students who form that class's "adjusted cohort" (an adjusted cohort is the number of students who entered ninth grade four years prior, plus any students who transferred in, minus any students who were removed from the cohort). Students who are held back from advancing a grade level because they aren't academically prepared or who enroll in a GED program remain in the cohort and so count against the graduation rate. Students who leave school for any reason other than transferring to another state-approved school (or out of the state or country) remain in the cohort and count against the graduation rate.

Though the question of how graduation rates will be calculated has been answered, a new grad-rate debate looms. The foremost questions are 1) will the U.S. Department of Education actually enforce the new regulations, and 2) how far will it go to intervene when states and schools fail to make sure more students graduate? At least two major questions emerge for Ohio's state and local education leaders:

  • Will instituting a common measure for calculating graduation rates, while still allowing states to define graduation requirements, lead to Ohio "gaming" the system by accepting low standards? This is what happened when the feds mandated that all students be "proficient" by 2014 but let states define proficiency (see here). Graduation requirements already vary widely. For example, Wyoming mandates 13 credits to graduate, Ohio calls for 20, while Washington requires 24. Will Ohio shy away from implementing the rigorous college- and career-readiness standards established in the Ohio Core legislation (see here) because of the negative impact the standards might have on the state's four-year high-school completion rates? Will social promotion become more prevalent in the Buckeye State's high schools?
  • Will school choice be discouraged? The feds' common measure requires tracking student-level enrollment and official documentation to confirm that a student has transferred to another school, immigrated to another country, or is dead. Ohio has an excellent education-data system (see here), and the ability to track student enrollment among the state's schools. However, Ohio high-school students also have significant education options. In addition to more than 700 district high schools and 68 vocational schools, the state has 168 charter high schools, 170 private high schools (including 98 that participate in the state's voucher program), and several new, independent STEM schools coming online. Also, more than 450 Ohio school districts have some form of open-enrollment policy, and students can utilize post-secondary enrollment options to take college classes during high school. As it becomes more important to accurately track high-school enrollment, will districts - who see their funding shrink as students leave for other options -- discourage students from exercising school choice? Will state leaders (who've been no fans of school choice, see here) curtail charter and voucher programs further in order to make graduation-rate data collection easier and to boost their own rates?

While the debate of the last decade around how to calculate graduation rates has quieted some, there is little doubt that a new debate is about to rage.

For more information on the various graduation-rate calculation methods, an explanation of the controversy that surrounds them, and insight into the "next frontier" of the grad-rate debate, check out Fordham's latest report, The Great Graduation-Rate Debate, by Christine O. Wolfe here.

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