Grad rates measure apples and oranges


America’s Promise Alliance, founded by General Colin Powell, reported last week on Building a Grad Nation. The report had some good news for Minnesota, which it showed with a “moderate” gain in high school graduation rates (3.5 percent) from 2002 to 2009. That means a graduation rate of 87.4 percent, compared to a national average of 75.5 percent. Only five MN high schools showed “low” grad rates in 2009, compared to six in 2002. And Minnesota was in good shape to reach the 90 percent goal:


First, there are 14 states where fewer than 2,000  students per cohort need to be moved from dropouts to graduates to reach a 90 percent graduation rate. Of these 14, six (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Delaware, Alaska, and Minnesota) have made substantial progress from 2002 to 2009. (Grad Nation, p. 32)

The report lauded the work of the Minnesota Reading Corps:

For example, the Minnesota Reading Corps engages more than 550 national service members as reading tutors for more than 15,000 struggling learners throughout the state . By using evidence-based practices and personalized tutoring, the program has demonstrated proven results to help close Minnesota’s growing achievement gap . Nearly 80 percent of Reading Corps students achieved more than a year’s worth of progress in one year’s time, exceeding state and national averages and dramatically surpassing what would have typically been expected. (Grad Nation, p. 33-34)

But what’s in a graduation rate? Education Week points out some of the complications in measurement and warns that a new, mandated method of measuring grad rates will cause states to look a lot worse, very soon. What counts as graduation and who gets counted? Under the newly-mandated “cohort” method, the graduation rate measures “how many first-time 9th graders in a given class proceed to graduate with a standard diploma four years later.”

That, of course, gives no credit for students who graduate in five (or six) years rather than four. It’s not clear (to me, at least) how the new measure accounts for students who leave the state, or who get GED degrees rather than standard diplomas. Back to Education Week:

Ensuring that students are tracked properly can be complicated. States use exit codes to track where students go, and those codes, said Mr. Reyna, “vary from state to state. States have anywhere from four to near 40” such codes.

In an article about legislative changes to “meaningful progress” requirements, Beth Hawkins at MinnPost highlights another side of the reporting problem. She writes that:

St. Paul’s Humboldt High School, where one-fourth of students receive special ed services, is doing great things with students whose IQs extend below 50, who have some of the thorniest learning disabilities and who just arrived and speak no English. Because of this unique population, Humboldt has been labeled perennial failure under the [current] law.

Her report echoes a New York Times article that highlighted the mayor’s condemnation of a last-chance alternative school in NYC.

Known as a transfer high school, Bushwick Community admits only those teenagers who have failed elsewhere. Most students enter at age 17 or 18, and most have fewer than 10 credits. … If students enter at 17 or 18, with less than a year’s worth of credits, the chances seem strikingly good that the students will not graduate within six years of freshman year. 

The bottom-line conclusion: regardless of how graduation rates are measured, improving them is tough, and there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. 

[Photo credit: © leeavison –]