A growing chorus of education policy advocates is urging the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen graduation-rate accountability in states that have earned waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.
In separate letters last month to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a group of 36 civil rights, business, and education policy groups, along with U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., say they are concerned that many states' approved flexibility plans violate the spirit--if not the letter--of 2008 regulations that require all states to calculate the graduation rate in the same way and make those rates an important factor in high school accountability.
What's more, those groups and Rep. Miller warn that in many states, graduation rates--especially for groups of at-risk students--are such a minor part of the new accountability systems that getting students to successfully finish high school may take a back seat to other factors, such as performance on tests.
An Education Week review of the 35 approved waiver applications shows approaches to graduation-rate accountability vary significantly.
--Two states use the number of students that earn General Educational Development certificates, or GEDs, as part of their accountability system. In South Dakota, 12.5 percent of a school's grade is based on high school completion, which includes those earning a GED diploma. Louisiana awards a small number of points to schools for the GED certificates their students earn.
--Several states allow schools to take credit in their grading systems for students who take longer than four or five years to graduate. Colorado, for example, allows for a seven-year graduation rate.
--The weight that states afford to graduation rates in their accountability systems varies greatly. In Michigan's system, graduation rates are worth just 10 percent of a school's grade; in Kentucky, 20 percent; and Nevada, 30 percent.
"An erosion of the bipartisan progress made in the area of high school graduation-rate accountability is an unacceptable byproduct of this [waiver] policy," states the Sept. 21 letter from the business, civil rights, and education groups, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, and the National School Boards Association.
In his letter from the same day to Secretary Duncan, Mr. Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, wrote: "Of most immediate concern are those new state accountability systems approved by [the Education Department] that I believe undermine the role of graduation rates in determining school performance, are not supported by research or best practice, and erode the recent progress states have made on improving graduation rates."
Education Department officials had no additional comment on the graduation-rate issue and pointed to a spokesman's statement from last month in response to Mr. Miller's letter. "We will vigilantly monitor states to make sure their kids are getting over the bar and graduating them," said department press secretary Justin Hamilton at that time.
Four Years and Beyond
The concern over graduation rates is the latest in a series of sharp critiques by advocacy groups raising alarms about the waivers. Already, several states are defending their new accountability systems because, as the federal rules permit, they are setting different school performance benchmarks by race and ethnicity.
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