Here are some key policies and practices that will strengthen graduation rate reporting and accountability:
Expect that the four-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) will always be used for reporting and accountability purposes at the school and district levels, and hold your schools and district accountable for the performance of student subgroups – race, gender, ethnicity, income level, disability and language proficiency — as envisioned under the Department of Education’s 2008 graduation rate regulations. Inquire about the graduation rate of economically disadvantaged and special education students munity, compared to that of the community in general. The importance of expecting the ACGR to be used and publicized is that some other methods of calculating graduation rates often mask what is really happening.
Know and publicize the graduation rates for each high school in your community, and make sure that schools are using ACGR, which is also known as the “cohort” rate. (In some states, while the cohort rate is calculated, the results from other methods are reported publicly). Translating a graduation rate into a simple question – “How many students are not graduating each year?” — can tell you a great deal about the size of the challenge.
Know the trends over time. Ask the simple question, “Are your community’s schools getting better or worse over time?” The cohort rate has, in most states, not been used for long enough to provide meaningful trend data. Another federally computed graduation rate, the Average Freshman Graduation Rate, or AFGR, has been calculated for many years at the state level and in some districts. Use this where available (and see Tool 4, FAQ on Graduation Rates). If neither of these is available, check with your district office and state department for long-term trends.
At the same time, be careful with your use of data. Graduation rate calculations have been a murky business, and you will find that in many states, even the state calculation method changed at various points. One of the simplest methods is to compare the number of new ninth-graders and, four years later, the number of students who receive regular diplomas in four years. (The confusion is that a normal ninth grade includes new ninth-graders, just arrived from eighth grade, as well as repeating ninth-graders, and a normal diploma group includes the students who made it through in four years, plus those who took five or six years. This is the challenge that the ACGR is designed to address – it follows only new ninth-graders into diplomas – but in many cases it is still too early to be dependable.)
Support efforts and policies that require four-, five,- and six-year cohort rates to be calculated and reported separately, for both reporting and accountability purposes. Ask your local newspaper to publish these rates. Some students will take longer than the customary four years to graduate, but the goals should be:
- your community knows how many students take a long time to graduate;
- that higher expectations and greater levels and types of support are put into place, and that the community allocates resources to do this, including different options for older students; and
- that with higher expectations and greater support, more and more students will graduate from high school within four years, ready for college and careers.
Ask the superintendent, school board members and principals to publicly present their plans to reach a 90 percent graduation rate for all students by 2020. Make the same request of your mayor, city council or county commission, and those who have “the power of the purse.” Then ask them what they plan to do about this, and work with them to establish a community collaboration to make the plans happen.
Learn how the state evaluates each school in your community in the state accountability system and what the different categories imply about what is going on within school walls. What does it mean when a school is designated a “Focus school?” A “Priority school?” An A, B, C, D, or F school?
Learn about the state accountability system itself. What “weight” does it give to the graduation rate? In a few states, the graduation rate counts for as little as 13 percent of a school’s designation or grade. Is that enough? Educate yourself and your community about the intricacies of the accountability system and whether it set a high enough standard for schools. Work for policies at the district, state, and national levels that encourage graduation and college/career preparation and work against policies that inadvertently discourage success.