State Graduation Rate Goals for High School Accountability
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State Graduation Rate Goals for High School Accountability

Introduction  Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), all elementary, middle and high schools receiving Title I funds are required to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) or face increasingly rigorous sanctions for each year that a school remains in need of improvement. In addition to test scores in English language arts, math and, effective with the 2007-2008 year science, high schools are required to use graduation rates as the additional indicator in demonstrating adequate yearly progress. (Meeting a graduation rate target cannot help a school with low test scores make AYP but missing the graduation rate target can keep a school from making AYP.) Each state is mandated to set its own graduation rate target and the method it will use to calculate the state graduation rate, both of which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Criteria for state definition of graduation rate:To be approved by the U.S. Department of Education, each state's graduation rate definition and calculation method had to meet the following criteria:

--Calculate the percentage of students, measured from the beginning of the school year, who graduate from public high school with a regular diploma (not including a GED or any other diploma not fully aligned with the state’s academic standards) in the standard number of years; or,
--Use another more accurate definition that has been approved by the U.S. Secretary of Education; and
--Must avoid counting a dropout as a transfer.

In addition, graduation rate is included (in the aggregate) for AYP, and disaggregated (as necessary) for use when applying the exception clause to make AYP.

Graduation rate targets:Baseline targets and growth targets: Thirty-five states set graduation rate targets for 2002-2003 that do not change through the 2013-2014 school year, when all schools are expected to make AYP. By contrast, 13 states and the District of Columbia set goals that require schools to meet increasingly higher targets until 2013-2014. Three additional states, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee, maintain relatively stable goals until 2013-2014, in which Iowa's target will increase from the statewide average to 95%, Kansas' target will rise from 75% to 95% and Tennessee's will grow from 90% to 100%.

2005-2006 state graduation rate goals vary considerably, from 50% in Nevada to 95% in Indiana. However, due to the differences in how states calculate graduation rates, it is not possible to make simple comparisons of graduation rate goals from one state to the next. For example, while both Hawaii and Vermont have a 75% graduation rate target for the 2005-2006 school year, Vermont's graduation rate is calculated using a 2-year average, while Hawaii's uses one year of school data. Vermont uses a five-year departure classification definition which calculates the number of dropouts and transfers in over a five-year period, while Hawaii uses a 4-year cohort definition, which essentially calculates the number of high school graduates minus the number of ninth-graders four years earlier--resulting in potentially very different graduation rate figures for each state.

"Improvement" or "maintainance" as a proxy for meeting graduation rate targets: ECS has identified 32 states that allow high schools that have not met the state's graduation rate target to still make AYP if they demonstrate progress--generally described as improvement from the previous year's graduation rate. Twenty-five of these 32 states allow any progress to be made to make AYP; three states (Arkansas, Maryland and North Carolina) require .1% improvement from the previous year; 2 states (Arizona and Florida) require 1% growth over the prior year's graduation rate; and Washington requires high schools not meeting the state target to demonstrate a 2% increase over the previous year. Three states--Delaware, New Mexico and South Carolina--allow a high school to make AYP if the school's graduation rate is below the state target but equal to the school's graduation rate in the previous school year. Missouri requires high schools to make progress toward an 85% graduation rate, but upon attaining it, allows schools to make AYP by maintaining this rate.

Multi-year averages: Six states allow high schools to make adequate yearly progress based on multi-year averages. California permits high schools to reach graduation rate targets by improving their rate by 0.2% over a two-year average. Oregon allows schools to make AYP using a two-year average, whereas in Vermont graduation rates are calculated only using a two-year average. New Mexico and South Carolina allow for a three-year average (current year and two previous years), while Tennessee allows high schools to meet the 90% graduation rate target using the most recent two years' data or a three-year rolling average.

States without uniform statewide target: A handful of states do not set a uniform statewide target from year to year. Arkansas' graduation rate target is defined as one standard deviation below the mean (86.74167%). Florida requires high schools to make 1% improvement over the previous year without setting a minimum statewide numerical target. Iowa annually sets its graduation target as the average of the current school year's graduation rate. Missouri requires schools to make improvement until they reach an 85% graduation rate, at which point schools must maintain or exceed the 85% graduation rate. New Jersey's target is the current state average, provided this average does not dip below 90%.

Methods of calculating graduation rates:A description of various methods of calculating graduation rates follows the table below.

These data were collected in February-March 2006 from U.S. Department of Education approved state accountability workbooks, decision letters documenting changes to state accountability workbooks, and, where necessary, communications with state education agency staff.

This database was compiled by Jennifer Dounay, project manager, ECS High School Policy Center. For questions, additions or corrections: 303.299.3689 or

Graduation rate target for 2005-2006 Using NCES 4-year cohort definition State has incremental goals towards 2014 target
District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
Federal Law
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia
American Samoa
Puerto Rico
Virgin Islands

Methods of calculating graduation rates:For purposes of this report, three methods of calculating graduation rates are identified--a four-year cohort, a departure classification definition and "other" methods, generally unique to the state adopting them.

Four-year cohort: This method compares the number of graduating 12th-graders with the number of 9th graders four years earlier, factoring in students who left the cohort by transfering into or out of the system. According to the 2004 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, National Institute of Statistical Sciences/Education Statistics Services Institute Task Force on Graduation, Completion, and Dropout Indicators, the four-year cohort is capable of calculating a more accurate graduation rate than other methods. However, such a graduation rate calculation requires a longitudinal data system that provides each student with a unique student identifier to track each student's progress through the system over time. Relatively few states currently have such data systems (see the ECS database on state data systems for more state-specific information).

As of the 2005-2006 school year, 11 states are using the cohort definition, and two additional states--New Mexico and New York--will have the first 4-year cohort data at the end of the 2006-2007 school year. According to the September 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, No Child Left Behind Act: Education Could Do More to Help States Better Define Graduation Rates and Improve Knowledge about Intervention Strategies, an additional 18 states plan to use the cohort definition by the 2007-2008 school year. Furthermore, all 50 states have signed on to a compact put forward by the National Governors Association in July 2005 that commits each state to adopting a 4-year cohort graduation rate. (A full report on the NGA's task force on state high school graduation data is also available.)

Departure classification definition: This method, as defined in the September 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, No Child Left Behind Act: Education Could Do More to Help States Better Define Graduation Rates and Improve Knowledge about Intervention Strategies, is used in 31 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. As succinctly defined in the GAO report, "Essentially, this definition looks back from a 12th grade class at those who (1) graduated (regardless of when they started high school), (2) dropped out in 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades (including those who enrolled in GED programs) and (3) did not graduate, but received some form of alternative completion certificate." This definition makes it possible to determine a graduation rate without a data system tracking individual students through the four years of high school.

"Other" definitions: Five states have graduation rate definitions that do not fit into the above categories. The table above provides a brief definition of each of these definitions.

Special populations and alternative schools: Some states' approved accountability workbooks and decision letters refer to the fact that students with disabilities, English language learners, and, in the case of Washington State, migrant students, may require more than 4 years to complete a high school diploma. Generally speaking, the U.S. Department of Education has granted states requesting additional time for such students to allow schools and IEP teams to provide additional time on a case-by-case basis. Relevant language from approved accountability workbooks and decision letters has been collected in a separate ECS document. In addition, a handful of states have received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to modify graduation rate criteria for students in alternative school settings or high schools that do not include grade 12. These provisions are listed in the "Notes" section following the table below.

Notes:California: For high schools without a graduation rate (e.g., only grades 9 and 10) or high schools with a primary mission of returning students to a regular classroom environment in a comprehensive high school: • For high schools administered by a district, the department of education will assign them the district graduation rate. • For direct-funded charter high schools, the department will assign the graduation rate of the charter authorizer, unless the charter authorizer does not have a graduation rate, in which case the countywide graduation rate of the county in which the school is located will be assigned. • For high schools administered by county offices of education, the department will assign the countywide graduation rate.

Georgia: Once new student information system is in place, state will focus on longitudinal tracking of individual students and will no longer set triennial goals. (per July 1, 2005 decision letter)

Kentucky: Allows students completing high school in four or less years to obtain a standard diploma as graduates. (February 2, 2004 decision letter)

Maine: An individual student will be counted as a dropout only once within five years of enrolling in ninth grade in a specific school. (August 31, 2004 decision letter)

Maryland: 2006 H.B. 71 (MD. CODE ANN., EDUC. § 7-203.2) authorizes the state to grant additional time to graduation for students with disabilities, limited English proficient students, and "other students when educationally appropriate based on an individualized review of a student's pathway to graduation."

Minnesota: Minnesota will work towards a system that is able to identify the number of years that students have been in high school and adjust the graduation rate accordingly. (Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbook, updated July 20, 2005)

New York: An exception to the 4-year cohort graduation rate determination will be made for high schools where a majority of students participate in a State-approved five-year program that results in the receipt of certification in a career or technology field or in a program that results in the awarding of an Associates degree in addition to a high school diploma. For those schools, the graduation rate will be the percentage of those students defined in Conditions 1 and 2 who earned a regular high school diploma no later than the end of year 5.

North Dakota: North Dakota will apply a one-year lag to the additional indicators for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years for attendance, and the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years for graduation rate. No schools or districts will be held in double jeopardy. If they miss the attendance target in 2003-04, they will not be considered as missing AYP in 2004-05 because doing so would put them in school improvement based on one year's data. (August 10, 2005 decision letter)

Washington: To encourage schools to serve students who remain in school beyond 4 years, a separate graduation rate is calculated that includes students who graduate in more than 4 years, and this rate may be used for AYP purposes. Both the on-time and extended graduation rates will be reported. (September 1, 2005 decision letter). State will also report and use for accountability purposes dropout rates for high schools (those without a 12th grade) without the capability to graduate students.

Wyoming: Will review the graduation rate for very small high schools. Small schools with fewer than thirty exiters will be examined individually to ensure a valid decision. This examination will include an examination of past trend data utilizing a trend line of three years data to ensure positive progress is being demonstrated in graduation rate over time. (July 1, 2004 decision letter)

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