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Do Graduation Reporting Standards Mean Anything?

Jun 16, 2008
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings introduced new proposed regulations to help clarify how schools, districts and states implement policies and business practices under No Child Left Behind.

Among these proposals, Secretary Spellings has asked that high schools be required to use graduation rates that track cohorts of students as they progress through high school. Schools would be required to publish graduation rates for their total student population as well as every group tracked under No Child Left Behind: minority students, economically disadvantaged students, English as Second Language students, and students with disabilities.

Tracking a cohort group means that you take one group, for example ninth graders who entered high school in 2004, and track where the people in that group went: those who stayed on to graduate, moved away, dropped out, graduated in more or less than four years and so on. This sounds easier than it looks; you have to track those who left your school, as well as those who stayed.

Unless the Secretary is prepared to put money behind this proposal, it's more of a hindrance that a help to anyone. Tracking a cohort requires research and reporting the good, bad and the neutral.

Colleges track graduation rates; the most promoted are six year rates, the reasons being that students withdraw, but later return to school. They use a six year rate because a six year rate is needed to get complete information about a cohort group. College students may drop out for academic, family, military service or personal financial reasons.

High schools will need to use a six year rate as well. A cohort of ninth graders will not all graduate together from the same school four years later for many legitimate reasons. A school located in an economically depressed area will fare poorly under such reporting: parents move away for employment, students have to work to supplement a family's income, and health is generally poorer in poorer places. Furthermore, people leave a depressed community for a nicer one when their financial situation gets better; why shouldn't they move to places with better schools?

Looking at my list of reasons, I see two things: one, they have little to nothing to do with the quality of education at a particular school and two; they are family decisions over which a school had no control. It might be useful to track if a student at school A who transferred to school B graduated from school B, but is that an effective use of school A's human resources? I don't think so, especially in this economy.

If the federal government is willing to fund the data collection and tracking as they fund the Census, then fine. Parents could fill out an enrollment form and send it to the Department of Education, without involving the schools, and the schools could sort the data for their needs.

The primary intentions for No Child Left Behind are to close achievement gaps and achieve 100 percent proficiency in language arts and math by 2014, not to give the Department of Education a mandate to play big brother or sister -- and force districts, schools and states to pay the bill for their oversight.

(Originally published at Educated Quest blog and reprinted with permission of the author, Stuart Nachbar).
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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