More Grad Rates! Why Kerry’s Graduation Rate Plan Matters

If Eduwonk’s email is any indication, there is some head scratching about Senator John Kerry’s proposals to increase graduation rates. It’s good politics but just what is so noteworthy? After all, isn’t pretty much everyone for higher graduation rates? Sure, but Kerry’s policy is a good one, here’s why:

Most Americans probably don’t realize we have such a substantial dropout problem. After all, the majority of states report dropout rates between four and seven percent, which, while not perfect, does not seem too bad. But these figures only represent the percent of high schoolers dropping out in a given year. And, just like a monthly interest rate on a credit card that looks like a good deal but actually translates into an exorbitantly high APR, over the course of three or four years a four to seven percent dropout rate translates into a lot of kids falling through the cracks.

The Urban Institute and Manhattan Institute calculate more accurate graduation rates by comparing the number of students who enroll in ninth grade to the number graduating four years later. These studies find that about one-third of high school students nationally don’t graduate, and barely half of African American and Hispanic students graduate in four years. That is a real problem seeing that a high school degree is the absolute minimal credential for any opportunity in today’s economy.

The No Child Left Behind Act holds schools and states accountable for graduation rates to avoid creating an incentive to “push out” struggling students to raise test scores. Members of Congress were aware of the reporting problems and included language in the law encouraging states to calculate rates using the Urban/Manhattan method. But the Bush Administration issued ambiguous regulations and allowed states to adopt much looser graduation rates definitions for NCLB. So, the underreporting and obfuscation continues. Kerry proposes to deal with this and enforce the intent of the law. Wonky stuff, but important.

Afterthought: Say what you will about NCLB, if disputes over data collection garner this sort of attention then that’s a pretty good indication the law is focusing more attention on low-income and minority kids. That’s a good thing, right?

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