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Better High School Graduation Rates May Be An Illusion

New federal rules will likely cause nationwide graduation rates to drop 5-10 percent.

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Over the past several years, high school graduation rates nationwide have improved. On Monday, the Florida Department of Education announced the state's graduation rate hit a record high of 80.1 percent. But don't expect those numbers to continue rising, due to a federal mandate that takes effect next year.

New federal rules that mandate states to report graduation rates uniformly will go into effect for the class of 2012, meaning states, including Florida, will no longer be able to count students who finish special education and adult education programs in their state graduation rates.

Under current federal laws, states are allowed to lump in students who complete special education programs, night school, the GED, and virtual high school programs along with those who earn a traditional high school diploma. After removing students who complete these so-called "alternative diploma" programs from that pool, Chris West, of Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center, estimates that the official national graduation rates will likely dip between 5 percent and 10 percent next year.

That doesn't mean schools are doing anything differently or are graduating fewer students than in past years. The definition of "graduation rate," he says, will become standardized: the number of students who graduate high school in four years divided by the number of students who entered the school four years prior. West, whose research center tries to determine why students drop out, says the changes are welcomed, and states and schools should be happy, too. 

"Every state hasn't been reporting graduation rates in the same way," he says. When states vie for federal money from President Obama's reform-minded Race to the Top program, which takes graduation rates into account, they'll now all be on a level playing field.

With important money on the line, states can hardly be blamed for lumping together all diplomas offered, West says. Once the federal mandate takes effect, differing reporting systems won't be held accountable for discrepancies between states. "If one state looks horrible compared to another state, there will be reasons for that."

In Florida, about 8,000 high school students (approximately 5 percent of all graduates) received an alternative diploma from an adult education or special education program during the 2010-2011 school year, according to state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

[Learn why Gov. Rick Scott is placing an emphasis on science and math education.]

"Surely there will be a drop next year," Robinson says. The state will release adjusted numbers next month that will meet federal guidelines.

Over the past few years, the reported graduation rate in Florida has skyrocketed: In 2008, the state graduated just 66.9 percent of students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By comparison, the latest national numbers, from 2008, put the on-time graduation rate at 72 percent.

Robinson attributes the gains to tougher state testing standards, the reallocation of high-performing teachers to low-performing schools, and a statewide statistics database that allows teachers and administrators to tailor instruction to individual students. The database includes student discipline and past performance records, so teachers can focus on topics a student doesn't understand.

[Learn more about teacher evaluation systems.]

Robinson says it's important for the public not to overreact to a seemingly sudden drop in graduation rates next year.

"People might say, 'Wow, Florida went from 80 to 71 percent—that's a major drop,'" Robinson says. "It's my job to get out the message early that we've changed how we identify graduation rates."

West, from the Everyone Graduates Center, argues the changes will make states more accountable. "We should be able to know what happens to ninth graders," he says. "People will say, 'Things are even worse than we thought they were,' but I think more positively and say, 'This is the way things have always been, and now we're measuring more accurately.'"

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