New grad rates looking up

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates by state for the year 2010-11, and the overall picture is best described as not as bad as we thought.

The release marks the first year that states are reporting uniformly computed graduation rates based on a four-year cohort of students. There are two big advantages to the new calculation. First, because all states are using the same formula we can reliably compare rates across states. Second and most important, the new calculation comes as close as possible to tracking individual students, including those who transfer in and out of the system, and is therefore a much more accurate picture of high school completions. (CPE describes the problems with previously used grad rate formulas here.)

The Department cautions that these numbers are preliminary. Even so, there’s enough here to offer some encouragement to public schools that they are moving in the right direction.

Prior to the universal adoption of the four-year cohort rate, statisticians had to rely on estimates to come up with comparable grad rates. We feature one of these estimated data sets  — EdWeek’s Diploma Counts — in our Data Center.

I compared the Department’s numbers with EdWeek’s. Please note that the Department numbers are for the class of 2010-11 while EdWeek’s most current data are for 2008-09. There has been a modest but steady upward trend in high school graduation over the last decade, and so we could reasonably expect a 1-2 point difference due to actual gains. However, the newly reported and more accurate rates from the Department are for the most part significantly higher than the EdWeek estimates. For some states the difference is as much as 10 points or more.  Consider:

Also keep in mind that these rates are for on-time graduation. CPE’s Jim Hull estimates that including students who take five or six years to earn a standard diploma would increase the grad rate by about 5 points.  Yet another advantage to the cohort rate is that states will have the data to better track students who haven’t graduated on time but are still on track toward a diploma.

The preliminary data may contain some noise, especially concerning special needs and ELL students, whose rates range widely by state from high 20s to low 80s. These numbers will need to be sorted out. In addition, no state exceeds 90 percent and the rates for African American, Latino and Native American students still lag, showing that we still have a lot of work to do. But there is cause for optimism that schools’ efforts are starting to show results. Find your state’s cohort rates here.

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