No Child Left Behind Act:

Education Could Do More to Help States Better Define Graduation Rates and Improve Knowledge about Intervention Strategies

GAO-05-879: Published: Sep 20, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 20, 2005.

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About one third of students entering high school do not graduate and face limited job prospects. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) requires states to use graduation rates to measure how well students are being educated. To assess the accuracy of states' graduation rates and to review programs that may increase these rates, GAO was asked to examine (1) the graduation rate definitions states use and how the Department of Education (Education) helped states meet legal requirements,(2) the factors that affect the accuracy of graduation rates and Education's role in ensuring accurate data, and (3) interventions with the potential to increase graduation rates and how Education enhanced and disseminated knowledge of intervention research.

As of July 2005, 12 states used a graduation rate definition--referred to as the cohort definition--that tracks students from when they enter high school to when they leave, and by school year 2007-08 a majority plan to use this definition. Thirty-two states used a definition based primarily on the number of dropouts over a 4-year period and graduates. The remaining states used other definitions. Because the cohort definition is more precise, most states not using it planned to do so when their data systems can track students over time, a capability many states do not have. Education has assisted states primarily on a case-by-case basis, but it has not provided guidance to all states on ways to account for selected students, such as for students with disabilities, thus creating less consistency among states in how graduation rates are calculated. The primary factor affecting the accuracy of graduation rates was student mobility. Students who come and go make it difficult to keep accurate records. Another factor was whether states verified student data, with fewer than half of the states conducting audits of data used to calculate graduation rates. Data inaccuracies can substantially raise or lower a school's graduation rate. Education has taken steps to help states address data accuracy issues. However, Education officials said that they could not assess state systems until they had been in place for a while. Data accuracy is critical, particularly since Education is using state data to calculate graduation rate estimates to provide consistency across states. Many interventions are used to raise graduation rates, but few are rigorously evaluated. GAO identified five that had been rigorously evaluated and showed potential for improving graduation rates, such as Project GRAD. In visits to six states, GAO visited three schools that were using such interventions. Other schools GAO visited were using interventions considered by experts and officials to show promise and focused on issues such as self esteem and literacy at various grades. Education has not acted on GAO's 2002 recommendation that it evaluate intervention research, a recommendation the agency agreed with, and has done little to disseminate such research.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 29, 2008, Education published a final rule pertaining to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requiring states to define their graduation rates by using the definition of an Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, defined to include those who graduate in 12th grade as a subset of all of those who began with the cohort in 9th grade four years earlier. It is "adjusted" in the sense that it allows for certain circumstances, such as students who take through the summer of the 12th grade year in order to complete their requirements. This rule also allows states to calculate one or more extended-year adjusted cohort rates (i.e., 5-year rate, 6-year rate, etc.), which may help schools that are seeing positive results with particular programs, such as dropout prevention or dual enrollment programs, or with particular groups of students, such as students with disabilities or recently arrived students with limited English proficiency, provided they are able to graduate with a regular high school diploma. This allowance maintains comparability across school districts and across states by having all states use the same adjusted cohort rate. By including the summer graduates, Education clarifies a permissible modification that could account for students in special programs or those with disabilities because those students may generally take longer than other students in order to complete requirements for graduation from high school. Also, with this rule, Education requires Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations made beginning in the 2011-2012 school year to include graduation rates for sub-groups of students, including students with disabilities. (Prior to this rule, AYP determinations were based in part on graduation rates for cohorts as a whole.) In doing so, Education explicitly requires states to account for the graduation rates of students with disabilities. According to Education, "An adjusted cohort graduation rate will improve our understanding of the characteristics of the population of students who do not earn regular high school diplomas or who take longer than four years to graduate."

    Recommendation: To assist states in improving their definitions of high school graduation rates and enhancing the consistency of these rates, the Secretary of Education should make information available to all states on modifications available to account for students in special programs and students with disabilities in their graduation rate calculations. This information could include fuller explanations or examples of available flexibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and told us that they have worked to improve the quality of the student data that states submit, including that used in Education's interim graduation rate estimates. Specifically, Education has implemented various edits to determine data reasonableness, such as comparing prior year data to current year data and comparing data within the submission to identify that which is not logical. It requests state CCD Coordinators to explain the discrepancies identified. Education also requires state officials to confirm that the data submitted to Education are accurate. Further, Education collects information on each state's quality control processes and on the state's definitions of student groups and compared these definitions to Education's definition standards. Although Education did not implement these processes based on our recommendation, these processes sufficiently address our identification of the need to assess the reliability of data used in its interim graduation rate estimates.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education, before developing interim graduation rate estimates, should assess the reliability of data submitted by states used for this purpose. This assessment could include specific criteria that demonstrate that states' data systems can produce accurate data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education agreed with our recommendations and reported a written timeline to address this recommendation that was confirmed by an agency official. Specifically, the Department had begun a review in April 2005 through it's What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to identify research on effective strategies for dropout prevention, including those that focus on graduation. The WWC review team identified and evaluated 14 interventions that were potentially considered to be effective in keeping students in school, completing school, or both. The WWC disseminated the three of the 14 studies which were found to meet evidence standards by posting them on its Website in the fall of 2006.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should establish a timetable for carrying out the recommendation in our 2002 report that Education evaluate research on dropout interventions, including those interventions that focus on increasing graduation rates. In addition, the Secretary should disseminate research on programs shown to be effective in increasing graduation rates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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