The waivers under the NCLB law allow states the freedom to design their own differentiated accountability systems that do not revolve around the original goal of 100 percent proficiency for all students in math and reading by the end of the 2013-14 school year. In exchange for having significant parts of the original law waived, states have to commit to intervening in the 15 percent of the lowest-performing schools, focus on closing achievement gaps, and implement teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that are based in part on student performance.
The flexibility offered to states, which comes as Congress remains overdue in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the current version, did not waive the 2008 graduation-rate regulations.
According to the regulations put in place by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served in the George W. Bush administration, the graduation rate is defined as the number of students who finish high school with a regular diploma within four years. The regulations allow for the addition of an extended-year graduation rate so schools could receive credit for getting students over the finish line in more than four years. But generally, the department also required states to set more ambitious goals for those extended-year rates. And most states didn't exceed a five-year rate anyway, policy advocates say.
In addition, the regulations made graduation rates a crucial factor in accountability. Schools had to meet their state's graduation goal for all students and subgroups of at-risk students, or make improvement, in order to make adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law.
"What's most concerning is the number of states and the variety of ways in which graduation-rate accountability is being implemented that is different from graduation-rate accountability as envisioned under the 2008 regulations," said Phillip Lovell, the vice president of federal advocacy for the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which works on high school issues and signed on to the September letter. "The states would only have to make, in most instances, modest modifications to their accountability systems to fix these graduation-rate problems. Little changes could have a big impact."
What the Plans Show
The waiver plans show that states are, for the most part, reporting their four-year graduation rate as required--but that in many cases, these graduation rates may be watered down by other factors, such as when states use extended-year rates or introduce separate measures that allow schools to get credit for GED recipients.
In Colorado's case, college- and career-readiness indicators count for 35 percent of a high school's grade, and graduation rates are a part of that broader indicator. The state includes schools' and districts' four-year graduation rates, but also counts five-, six-, and seven-year graduation rates in its accountability system.
"It's not just about giving credit, but making sure we've created an accountability system that incentivizes schools and districts to ensure students are postsecondary and workforce ready, regardless of the time they need to get there," said Colorado department of education spokeswoman Megan McDermott. "We don't want an accountability system that says, 'If you can't do it in four years, then it doesn't count.'"In the more than a dozen states that have adopted letter grading or point systems for evaluating schools, graduation rates count for less than a third of a school's grade.
Michigan, in its waiver application, explained the 10 percent weight it gives to graduation rates this way: "Although graduation rate is an important indicator, [the state] feels that placing too much emphasis on graduation incentivizes schools and districts to graduate students who are not proficient, and therefore not considered career- and college-ready."
When states submitted their initial waiver applications, outside peer reviewers found significant problems with many of the states' graduation-rate accountability plans.
The Education Department, however, didn't always adhere to the reviewers' suggestions.
In South Dakota, for instance, the peer reviewers recommended that the state forgo using a "completer" rate that included those who earned a GED diploma or another certificate of completion (such as those who fulfilled the requirements of an Individual Education Plan). South Dakota made some changes, but the department allowed the state to keep its completer rate and include only GED certificates.
And in Michigan, although peer reviewers were concerned about the low weight given to graduation rates, the department allowed the state to keep the weighting at 10 percent.
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