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Scholars Call for More Nuanced Graduation Measures

As states and districts prepare to report new common longitudinal graduation rates this year, national graduation rate researchers argue educators should go beyond the basic data.

"Improving graduation rates in this country requires more than simply reporting accurate rates," concludes a new report by the Committee on Improved Measurement of High School Dropout and Completion Rates, a joint project by the Washington D.C.-based National Research Council and National Academy of Education. The former is the research arm of the National Academic of Sciences and the latter is an invitation-only group of noted education scholars.

"To truly improve outcomes for students," the report adds, "data systems need to incorporate information that enables early identification of at-risk students."

The 2010-11 school year will be the first in which states, districts and schools must report their high school graduation rates based on a common method in which cohorts of students entering 9th grade are tracked through graduation. In the following year, the four-year adjusted cohort rate, as it is known, will be used for federal accountability under the No Child Left Behind law.

The federal method is "a good start, but it's not the whole story," said Robert M. Hauser, the committee chairman.

States will get the most bang for their buck by building systems that track individual students from year to year, Mr. Hauser said, allowing districts to diagnose more fine-grained graduation rate trends. For example, the committee, launched in 2008, advised districts building their graduation-tracking systems to include warning indicators, such as: frequent absences, failing grades in reading or math, poor behavior, being over age for grade, having a low 9th grade grade-point average, failing 9th grade, or having a record of frequent school or district transfers.

Creating more-nuanced systems, the researchers argue, will allow schools and districts to identify struggling students in earlier grades and tailor interventions to keep them in school or encourage those who have already left to return to school.

"You shouldn't lock the barn door after the horses have left; you should get these indicators before the students go off track," Mr. Hauser told me.

Mr. Hauser acknowledged that most states have nowhere near the data capacity to implement individual graduation trajectories for each student, but said he hopes the need to improve local economies could spur states to study local graduation situations more closely.

"The marginal cost of getting that kind of diagnostic information is rather low once you have the kind of overall data tracking system we're proposing," he said. For example, the study lauds Florida's data system for tracking both graduates and dropouts after they leave school, be it through employment, public assistance, or corrections data.

States just got a leg up on designing such systems through new federal graduation rate improvement grants, as my colleague Catherine Gewertzreported earlier today.

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