Interpreting Graduation Rates: Not as Easy as ABC

Eric Wearne

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019

The Atlanta Falcons’ two highest-scoring offensive years of all time were in 1998 and 2016. Fans will remember those years as the two seasons the team made it to the Super Bowl – but lost.

Scoring points is excellent. It’s better than not scoring. It gets you far. But it’s not the team’s ultimate purpose.

Georgia’s high school graduation rate hit a new high last year, of 82.0%. The Georgia Department of Education (GADOE) attributes this rise to “Georgia’s teachers and students, who are doing the on-the-ground work that leads to increases in our graduation rate and other indicators – including NAEP and Georgia Milestones scores.”

GADOE goes on to state, “[W]e must continue to focus on offering a relevant education and preparing every child for their future – not a one-size-fits-all system that sends every student in the same direction, but a tailored and personalized pathway based on a student’s academic and career interests and future goals.”

This reasoning is vague; exactly what has caused the graduation rate to rise across almost 200 independent school systems is unclear.

Of course, this is good news as far as it goes. But it should be taken with a few different grains of salt.

First, as background, many tout the “adjusted cohort graduation rate” (ACGR), arguing it makes this measure “standard” and “accurate” across states. That is not entirely the case. From the National Center for Education Statistics:

To calculate the ACGR, states identify the “cohort” of first-time 9th graders in a particular school year, and adjust this number by adding any students who transfer into the cohort after 9th grade and subtracting any students who transfer out, emigrate to another country, or pass away. The ACGR is the percentage of the students in this cohort who graduate within four years.

The method may be consistent across states, but a “graduate” is not. Not all states require the same courses, or use the same testing regimes to award diplomas. Some states count various alternative diplomas in their ACGR. States interact with the U.S. Department of Education on these decisions. (Read how Georgia handles its federal requirements in its press release). But the fact remains that the ACGR, while closer to consistency than before, still has some serious holes regarding “comparability.”

Second, the graduation rate statistic may be increasingly filled with some empty calories, in the form of “credit recovery.” In the past, students who failed particular required high school courses would have to sit through them all over again a second time to earn credit, whether in a later semester or in summer school. Now, schools and school systems can move students through this process faster, having them progress through self-paced online programs before taking exit exams. There are good arguments against one-size-fits-all seat time, but one does not have to squint too hard to see how such programs might be pushed too far, allowing students to collect credits without learning much.

More students seem to be taking these courses. One incidental fact is that while the graduation rate is rising, consistent absenteeism is also rising statewide (from 10.1% of students absent more than 15 days in 2015-16 to 11.9% in 2017-18). This seems odd, but one way to reconcile it would be a greater reliance on credit recovery.

If definitions and credit recovery are still leading to overestimates of the graduation rate, or diplomas’ actual value, how is a more sustainable rate achieved? Increasingly, the literature suggests that enrollment in school choice programs improves students’ chances of graduating from high school.

Not every study finds this. Still, high school graduation is not meant to be the final result, certainly not anymore. A study of students in a New York choice program found no increase in high school graduation – but it did find an increase in their college enrollment. Other studies have also found the enrollment in choice programs is related to increases in college enrollment (and even, in some cases, college graduation).

Increasing school choice seems likely to increase the graduation rate, or even better, college enrollment and completion rates.

Why not build on concepts that seem to be working? That seems to be a better approach than simply listing everything any school does and assuming that those activities all help increase graduation rates. Opening up more choices for students will not generate the same media attention as an annual graduation rate report will, but it is better than throwing everything against the wall.

The research increasingly supports increasing school choice. Sometimes it is better to do the policy work that will set us on more stable, sustainable paths instead of touting the flashiest numbers, even if those numbers look good. Sometimes the right call is the straightforward one, not the trick play. Sometimes you just have to run the ball.