Governors Move to Standardize Graduation Figures

The nation's governors move toward more standard measures of high school graduation rates. States say poor record keeping has stymied efforts to increase the number of students who finish high school. The state leaders are holding a national meeting in Iowa.

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At their summer meeting in Iowa the nation's governors took a big first step toward defining and measuring high school graduation rates. States say poor and inaccurate record keeping has long stymied efforts to increase the number of students who finish high school. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

States and the federal government have tried for decades to come up with an accurate count of how many students graduate from high school, but there's never been a consensus on how to do it. Virginia Governor Mark Warner, chairman of the National Governors' Association, says that's been a huge mistake.

Governor MARK WARNER (Chairman, National Governors' Association): So over the last 10 months, we've put together a coalition that ranges from teacher organizations to the Business Roundtable to state superintendents to governors and legislators and came up with a common graduation rate definition.

SANCHEZ: Here's what 45 governors agreed to. From now on states will divide the total number of high school graduates every year by the number of students who entered the ninth grade four years earlier. States will also take into account the number of students who transferred in or out four years earlier.

Mr. J.P. GREEN (Manhattan Institute): In principle this is an excellent agreement.

SANCHEZ: J.P. Green, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City, is a member of the governor's task force that worked on the formula for calculating high school graduation rates.

Mr. GREEN: They have taken a big step forward here by clarifying the definition of a graduation rate, but they've also recommended using multiple indicators, including a five-year graduation rate, a six-year graduation rate and breaking out graduation rates for subpopulations, including special education.

SANCHEZ: And that's key, says Green, because it'll give states a much better idea of what happens to students after high school. What the governors sidestepped, though, was the thorny issue of how to accurately count and report high school dropouts, although they did promise to crack down on misleading or incomplete dropout data. Again, Governor Warner.

Gov. WARNER: We have very little data that indicates what happens to that 16-year-old who leaves high school never to return.

SANCHEZ: Governors have also agreed to conduct yearly audits of schools' dropout records, records that today are unreliable. In 2003 the US Department of Education, for example, reported that the nation's high school dropout rate was no more than 11 percent, the lowest in 30 years. States, though, did not include students who were incarcerated, students who dropped out and enrolled in GED programs or joined the military. Some states didn't even count high school seniors who flunked their state's graduation exam. J.P. Green says the governors cannot go forward until the data is above board and reliable.

Mr. GREEN: I mean, in the end, there are only three outcomes for students: Students either graduate, drop out or die.

SANCHEZ: Although the governors' agreement on a common method to calculate high school graduation rates is unprecedented, five states, including three of the nation's most populous states--Florida, Texas and California--did not sign on to the initiative. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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