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They Graduate, But Not in Four Years


As the federal government has paid more attention to how graduation rates are calculated, I've been hearing complaints across the country from educators who say accountability systems should give schools credit for the success of students who graduate from high school, but not in four years. The group of students who take longer than four years to get a high school diploma includes a lot of English-language learners, particularly those who move to the United States and enroll in U.S. schools as teenagers.

In an article published today, "Graduating ASAP, if Not on State Timeline," The Washington Post puts a spotlight on Latino students who get a high school diploma after more than four years of schooling. The article notes that federal regulations for the No Child Left Behind Act that were recently released require schools to measure how many 9th graders receive a diploma in four years, so that by 2011 states have graduation rates that are comparable across states.

The rules don't provide flexibility for calculating the graduation rates for English-language learners. Researchers at the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute have documented that even after they fall to pass California's high school exit exam, many English-language learners in that state continue to attend class regularly, generally avoid trouble, and continue to work toward the goal of graduation. See the research paper, "Struggling to Succeed: What Happened to Seniors Who Did Not Pass the California High School Exit Exam?"

While I was visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., this fall, educators there told me they have a fair number of ELLs who graduate in five years rather than four. This issue of calculating graduation rates seems to be an example of where ELLs don't fit very well with efforts to create uniformity.


I am very happy you are discussing this issue. Here is a letter to the editor I wrote on this topic last June, published in the LA Times. They deleted one line, which I restored in brackets.

Published in the Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2008

Re "L.A. sees graduation rates drop," June 21

The Los Angeles Unified School District's Debra Duardo points out that if students can't graduate in four years, maybe they can in five. Studies of high school graduation count only students who graduated "on time," interpreting taking longer than four years as dropping out and sending the message that those who take longer are failures.

Graduating in more than four years shows perseverance. Many students need to work after school. A five-year program makes sense for them. Nobody worries how long it takes students to finish master's degrees and doctorates [and according to the College Board, the average time taken to complete a “four-year” college is 4.8 years.]

During the Depression, the father of a friend of mine alternated working a year and going to high school a year, because his family needed the money. He was not a failure. He was a hero.

Stephen Krashen

There needs to be a requirement of documentation and reporting. It used to be that graduation was documented by looking at how many seniors there were and how many graduated at the end of the year. I used to work for an urban district and I know that most students never even left 9th grade, much less made it to the senior level so they were never counted as drop outs. It was all hidden.
So then the federal government made up the rule that they would consider how many students entered in 9th grade and graduated 4 years later. A much better measure of counting and much more accurate but the districts still get to claim they were wrong because many don't graduate in 4 years. The smart thing to do is to track how many students actually graduate after that.
I can tell you from experience that most students who don't graduate in 4 years, don't graduate ever. They either drop out or are signed off as "non drop out" by shifting them into a GED program (which the Feds allow). Very few stay on. There is a lot of pressure to leave when students reach the four year mark from peers and custom and even special education students feel the pressure to leave. Many won't stay and opt for IEP diplomas rather than stay until 21 to reach for the regular ed diploma. ESOL kids who are highly motivated tend to resist that temptation but it can come down to pressure to work, marry, have kids, etc. whatever their home culture expects them to do.
The outcry of the students take more than 4 years is more of an out for a district than reality. Only a few students actually take their time and graduate, still, the best way to handle the problem would be to take them at their word and make the report the graduation rate. The problem it hasn't happened is that it would make the districts look worse and they wouldn't be able to whine the bad statistics away.

I think that should not just be looked at for ELL students and IEP students but all students. We need to get away from thinking that any student who is three or four years behind in reading, writing, and math could possible get an appropriate education and meet the standards as students who are on or above grade level will graduate in the same time frame of 4 years. Schools should be given credit for meeting students needs and getting them a diploma that means something--rigor and the accountability behind it.

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