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Advocates: Uphold Grad. Rate Accountability Under NCLB Waivers

Some disability advocacy groups are joining forces with others concerned about whether states will continue to be held accountable for students graduating from high school now that so many states have been granted No Child Left Behind waivers.

The Learning Disabilities Association said last week it has signed onto a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan with a number of other organizations that questions whether states that have received waivers are in violation of federal regulations issued in 2008 linking strong accountability and improvement in high school graduation rates. The National Down Syndrome Society, National Down Syndrome Congress, Easter Seals, the National Center on Learning Disabilities, and National Disability Rights Network, among others, have also signed on.

The Learning Disabilities Association said the shift could have a significant effect on students with learning disabilities. "We want to accurately reflect how students with learning disabilities are doing in relation to their peers, but also to ensure more students with [learning disabilities] get that very important high school diploma in order to move forward toward post-school education and/or employment."

The regulations issued in 2008 addressed concerns about state policies calculating grad rates. Some of the more questionable practices didn't hold schools accountable for the graduation of individual subgroups of students, including children with disabilities; some states had graduation rate goals as low as 50 percent, and some states allowed high schools to make adequate yearly progress with a very small amount of growth in their graduation rate. After the regulations, states were required to use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate calculation for purposes of reporting and accountability. Annual graduation rate targets had to be improve continuously and substantially. Subgroup performance had to be factored into the mix.

When reviewing some states waiver applications—34 states plus the District of Columbia have been granted waivers to date—the Alliance for Excellent Education found that several of those states with approved waivers inflate grad rates by combining calculations of the graduation rate that include GEDs with the four-year adjusted cohort rate, use alternative diplomas in their measure of high school completion, omit graduation rate accountability for student subgroups, and use extended-year graduation rates. Several states don't fully implement the requirement that states requesting flexibility designate high schools with rates under 60 percent as so-called priority or focus schools. Here's an excerpt:

[The Education Department's] flexibility policy affords states the opportunity to implement innovative education systems that will prepare students for the twenty-first-century economy and improve upon current accountability systems, not roll them back. An erosion of the bipartisan progress made in the area of high school graduation rate accountability is an unacceptable byproduct of this policy.

The groups are joined in protest by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. As my colleague Alyson Klein over at the Politics K-12 blog has written, Miller wrote Duncan last month to say he is also worried that states are trying to wriggle out of graduation reporting regs put in place in 2008.

"Over the last decade, we have learned much about the critical role graduation rates play in measuring the quality of our nation's schools," wrote Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee. "The federal government has the responsibility to ensure that the graduation gateway is open to all students, regardless of their background."

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