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NCLB Waivers Could Undermine Graduation Rates, Group Contends

You've probably heard a lot already about the applications that 11 states have made to waive the major requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. We've written about their common-core implications, and our federal beat reporters have brought you many details in blog posts and stories.

Now a Washington group that focuses on secondary schools is warning that some of those applications—and legislation under consideration in Congress—could weaken high schools' accountability for improving graduation rates.

In a policy brief issued this week, the Alliance for Excellent Education says that "the treatment of high school graduation rates in many state accountability indexes may reverse progress made in recent years to ensure accurate graduation rates are fully included in school accountability systems."

Some states' waiver applications propose accountability systems that would give high school graduation rates much less weight than they currently carry under NCLB, the policy brief says. The intention—to create a fuller picture of college and career readiness—is honorable, but the effect could undermine the pressure to produce good graduation rates, the policy brief argues.

The alliance singles out Kentucky and New Mexico for giving particularly light weights to high school graduation in the accountability systems they propose as part of their NCLB waiver applications. Kentucky's system would give high school grad rates only 14 percent of the total index, while New Mexico's would assign such rates 17 percent. Most states applying for waivers offered plans that would give high school grad rates less than one-quarter of the weight of their total accountability indexes, the brief says.

"If test scores in earlier grades or other indicators count far more for measuring a school's progress than whether a student actually graduates, the fact that high school graduation rates count for so little in the proposed indexes could create an incentive for schools to 'push out' low-performing students in order to increase scores on standardized tests," alliance President Bob Wise, the former chief executive of West Virginia, said in a statement accompanying the policy brief.

"States are moving in the right direction by creating accountability systems that provide a more complete view of whether students are ready for college and a career, but this cannot come at the expense of holding states accountable for graduation rates."

The alliance calls on the federal education department to make sure that states' proposals for NCLB waivers don't contradict federal regulations issued in 2008 that require high schools to use a tough, uniform way of calculating graduation rates and mandate setting ambitious graduation-rate goals. It shouldn't approve waiver applications unless the proposed accountability systems give equal weight to high school graduation rates and student achievement, while also allowing states to use additional measures of college- and career-readiness, the alliance argues.

Wise expressed concerns about the effects on high schools of NCLB legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill, also.

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