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Challenges Ahead as Push Continues to Improve High School Graduation Rate

While many celebrated the high school graduation rate recently crossing the threshold of 80 percent and the introduction of a more consistent cohort measure, others caution that improvements may become more challenging in the years ahead.

On April 28, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, for the first time used the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, which tracks individual student progress over time, to examine high school completion in its annual report. This new system is anticipated to give a more accurate snapshot of the country's progress in educating students.

The government is also speeding up the cycle of graduation-rate reporting, this year releasing the results for the graduating classes of 2011 and 2012. This can make it easier for researchers and policymakers to make their case for change with fresher data reflecting what is happening in the schools, according to Robert Balfanz, a co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of  another report last week on the new data that was issued by GradNation, a campaign aimed at increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

A delay with reporting and different ways of measuring student progress can create "noise" that distracts from debate over education reform, says Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, who has supported state efforts to track student-level data.  She hopes having agreement on a more accurate approach will help policymakers focus on the problem of increasing student completion.

Still, federal data lags behind what states provide. As it happens, the day the federal graduation-rate report was released it was already out of date as California unveiled its state graduation rates for 2013, notes Russell Rumberger, the director of the California Dropout Research Project and a professor of education at the University of California Santa Barbara.

If California is any indication of the rest of country, it may be a challenge for the nation to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. In the state's most recent report, there was an increase of  just 1.3 percentage points in the state's graduation rates, its smallest improvement in three years.

Nationwide, the 10 percentage-point gain in graduation rates in the past decade can be attributed to increased accountability, targeted school reform, enhanced supports to help the lowest-performing schools, and awareness of the problem, experts say.

"Kids are getting the message they should stay in school," says Rumberger. Increased media attention with public-service announcements, the GradNation campaign, and fewer job opportunities are lowering dropout rates, he says.

Still, Mr. Rumberger says while the new figures are encouraging, there is "nothing magical about 80 percent" for the high school graduation rate, noting that rates fluctuated and are just now getting back to levels seen about 40 years ago.

As for the attention to the new measure, Rumberger said the four-year cohort rate generally fails to include students who finish in five or six years and he advocates high schools use six-year graduation rates, just as colleges do. Students with disabilities, for instance, may take longer to graduate and Rumberger said states should have incentives to get all students to the finish line even it if takes more than four years.

Much of the progress made in high school completion has been made since 2006, according to the GradNation report. But whether that pace can be sustained has yet to be determined. 

Jim Hull, the senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., says he expects  significant gains over the next couple of years, but as the rate gets closer to 90 percent, it will be more difficult. "There is less room for make improvement," he says.

The GradNation report acknowledges the work ahead in reaching its goal. To achieve the mark, the report proposes key areas where the nation needs to advance, including closing the opportunity gap for low-income students, improving schools in urban areas, addressing special needs students, and investing in expanded learning time.

Now that data in this year's report are broken down by state and income level, however, it is easier to see where progress is being made. Experts hope states struggling to graduate low-income students, for instance, will look to others that have had more success for model policies.

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