July 18, 2005
Governors Endorse a Standard Formula for Graduation Rates
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
DES MOINES, July 17 - Governors from 45 states agreed Sunday to adopt a common formula to calculate high school graduation rates, an initiative intended to help policy makers more accurately measure student success and identify academic programs that need improving.
The agreement is nonbinding, but as a series of recommendations, it would lead to a uniform accounting system to replace the patchwork of approaches currently used that the governors say often produces inaccurate or misleading information. It would also help states comply with the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which uses graduation rates as a measure of whether schools are meeting annual progress requirements.
The governors said the agreement would also lead to a common formula for dropout rates and eventually to a reassessment of high school courses to make them more rigorous. Results of a federal study released last week showed that average reading and math scores for 17-year-olds were unchanged from the 1970's.
"This is just the first step," said Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors Association, which announced the agreement at its annual summer meeting here. "Right now, different states have different definitions. So how can we make valid comparisons? And if you can't compare, how do we validate who has the best practices?"
Education reform, specifically "redesigning high school," has been a major policy focus of the meetings here this weekend, as well as Mr. Warner's chief priority during his one-year term as chairman. The push for harmonizing how graduation rates are determined was a central component of his efforts, viewed as a critical need to help states track student progress and divert resources to those falling behind.
Raymond Simon, deputy secretary of education, said the federal study released last week "reaffirmed the urgency of redesigning the American high school."
For now, the nation's most populous states, California, Texas and Florida, as well as Maryland and Wyoming, have not agreed to adopt the new formula. Mr. Warner said "a couple more states" were likely to join the agreement, but he stopped short of predicting that all 50 would.
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican who will succeed Mr. Warner on Monday as chairman of the association, said current state-by-state comparisons of graduation rates were largely meaningless, adding that it would be like ranking one basketball team shooting at an 8-foot-high basket against another shooting at a 10-foot-high basket.
"We should all be shooting at a 10-foot basket," Mr. Huckabee said. "This will give us the ability to honestly know how well we are doing compared to other states."
Alluding to what many governors said needs to come next, a universal definition for dropout rates, Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said state calculations were so incomplete that they often led to "vast disparities," even within a state.
The governors said it was particularly difficult to track the progress - or even the whereabouts - of students who are counted among incoming ninth graders but have disappeared by graduation. The simple math of comparing aggregate numbers, they said, does not account for students who may have transferred to another school or taken time off before deciding to return later.
Further, they said, schools often produce dropout rates using outdated information or false assumptions, not really knowing whether a missing student has graduated, transferred or become missing for other reasons.
It is unclear, however, when the governors would be ready to sign an agreement on a dropout rate. Officials with the association said the task force that developed the formula for graduation rates would meet again within a few months to set a timetable for moving forward.
The formula for graduation rates divides the number of a state's graduates in a particular year by the number of students entering the ninth grade for the first time four years before, plus the difference between the number of students who transfer in and out over the same four years.