Virginia Measures True High School Graduation Rates

October 16, 2008 06:58 AM
by Jen O'Neill
A new report on graduation rates in Virginia more accurately measures how many students complete their studies—previous reports were inflated to mask the dropout problem.

America’s High School Dropout Crisis

Virginia’s highly anticipated report of high school graduation rates arrived last week, shedding new light on the dropout crisis.

The study commenced in 2004, when every student in Virginia was given an identification number to track their educational careers, regardless of whether they changed schools, districts or programs. The results of the study divided students into subgroups, including minority, low-income, ESL and homeless, to create more transparency about the education gap.

Prior to 2006, districts were responsible for reporting their own rates, causing concern over whether they overstated graduation rates to “make their high schools look better.” This time around there are actual students to back up the percentages, the Daily Press reports, whereas “[p]revious graduation rates were based on estimates researchers created using numbers districts provided.”

To evaluate the graduation rates of high school students, Virginia used The National Governors Association formula to calculate the percentage of students who started out as freshman and graduated with a regular four-year high school diploma, with accountability and transparency remaining as the key factors in how the “on-time” graduation formula is calculated.

The study revealed that “graduation rate” does not mean the same thing for every school or district. As a result, many “dropouts” were left out of the formula, and the number of students who actually graduated was overstated. In this case, Virginia’s Class of 2007’s graduation rate was reported to be at 94.6 percent, though this only measured the class’s senior year, and hid the fact that the four-year graduation rate was actually 73.5 percent.

Related Topic: Handling graduation rates in NYC

Virginia is one of many states to attempt to more accurately measure graduation rates. New York is another area where education researchers, policymakers and reformers are examining dismal high school graduation rates. Cary Goodman, executive director of Directions from Our Youth, told the New York Daily News, “Unfortunately, New York has never made the dropout crisis the centerpiece of its work in education.” The New York City schools chancellor’s office countered by saying that graduation rates have been on the rise, but many policymakers agree that progress has been slow. Nonprofits such as the United Way of New York City also help to remedy the discrepancies in high school graduation rate reporting through their Community Achievement Project in the Schools program.

Historical Context: Dropout epidemic

“We are facing a high school dropout crisis across the country,” Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asserted, after introducing the Every Student Counts bill. Harkin’s bill sets goals for students to graduate with a regular high school diploma, and establishes “uniform nationwide graduation calculations to allow for more consistency and transparency." Many schools across the country are jumping on board to create similar standards.

The dropout crisis has plagued American schools for many years, and the problem is not diminishing. Seventeen of the 50 largest U.S. cities’ graduation rates dipped below 50 percent, calling attention to the state of the country's public schools, according to America’s Promise Alliance, the group that commissioned the report. Moreover, about 70 percent of students graduate on time with a regular high school diploma, while 1.2 million students drop out yearly.

According to researcher Christopher Swanson, the study also confirms that there are discrepancies between urban and suburban education, and students in big-city schools have a much higher risk of dropping out than students in suburban schools. Of the 1.7 million urban high school students that were part of the study, 25 percent of students did not graduate from high school. Rick Dalton, president of College for Every Student, declares that the result of the study “just speaks to the crisis in the U.S.”

Background: Overstated graduation rates

A recent study conducted by The Economic Policy Institute shows that for many years, policy analysts criticized “status completion rates,” for purportedly “overstating completion rates.” Part of the issue, over the years, is that there has been a lack of agreement on what actually constitutes graduation. Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was instated, schools are increasingly being measured by their performance, with graduation rates being the most significant benchmark of school success.

In the future, states will have to submit accountability plans that highlight graduation goals. No Child Left Behind did not establish graduation requirements, and it is up to individual states to create plans that provide every student with the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma. Most policymakers would agree: until you can be honest about the number of students receiving diplomas, you cannot improve graduation rates.

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