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How new federal graduation rankings could backfire

  • College and Career Pathways

    College and Career Pathways

    Rigorous academic standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, will prepare students for college and careers. The Foundation supports policies that set high academic standards and provide rigorous preparatory courses and dual-enrollment options for students.

The unfortunate consequence of No Child Left Behind is that some states dumbed down assessments to increase student passing rates.

Could a new federal formula used to rank high school graduation rates do the same for graduation requirements? Dumbing down graduation requirements, after all, would be the easiest way to raise a state’s ranking.

The U.S. Department of Education unveiled its new formula in November.

“By using this new measure, states will be more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed,” said Secretary Arne Duncan. “Ultimately, these data will help states target support to ensure more students graduate on time, college and career ready.”

But the new measure comes in the form of numbers without context because there is no calculation of what states require for a diploma. A student who may easily meet the requirements to graduate in one state may not in another.

All diplomas are not created equal.

This makes the federal rankings misleading because they are not an apples-to-apples comparison among states. People in the education business understand this, but the vast majority of people – including many in the media and in state legislatures — do not. And so while these rankings carry no federal sanctions, they most definitely have political ramifications.

Consider these three news excerpts that followed the release of graduation statistics in November:

  • Boston Globe: Massachusetts failed to crack the top 10 for the best high school graduation rates in the nation and also had among the lowest rates in New England, according to data released Monday by the US Education Department that for the first time provides a uniform calculation for graduation rates.
  • Palm Beach Post: Florida has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, according to preliminary data released this week by the federal government.
  • Huffington Post: Iowa had the highest graduation rate at 88 percent, while Wisconsin and Vermont shared the second-highest rate with 87 percent.

What you don’t see is Massachusetts and Florida required students to pass exit exams before graduating, ensuring some base level of knowledge, while the top three states did not. Nor did the New England states that finished above Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has been a leader in requiring exit exams for graduation, and now that requirement extends to reading, math and science assessments. It’s interesting to note that Massachusetts’ students recently placed among the best in the world in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessments.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner, credited the state’s academic rigor and high expectations.

But an editorial in the Boston Globe which came out after the feds released their graduation rankings used them to argue against the exam requirements.

Florida has managed to increase its graduation rate while, at the same time, increasing the difficulty of its assessments. In addition, the state soon will require students to pass end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology in order to graduate.

These obviously will have a short-term impact on graduation and the state probably will take a hit in the federal rankings as a result.

The political temptation for Florida and other states might be to back off high expectations rather than elevate the students to meet them. That certainly would not further Secretary Duncan’s goal of ensuring students are “college and career ready.’’

In the future, the U.S. Department of Education might consider focusing as much attention on what states require to graduate from high school as it does on its graduation rankings.