We hear about an alarmingly large number of America’s schools failing to graduate their students. The Gates Foundation spent six years and $575 million to improve high school graduation rates — and they didn’t change. It might be time to consider that we’re measuring the wrong thing.
The federal government requires states to annually report each school’s “four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate” – the percentage of students who graduate from the school in four years. Students who enter ninth grade form a cohort that is adjusted by adding students who transfer into the school within the four years and subtracting students who transfer out.
The four-year cohort graduation rate was designed for traditional, brick-and-mortar schools with relatively stable student populations, but it does a poor job accurately measuring the performance of schools with high mobility. Further, it essentially dismisses the first three years of a student’s high school career and focuses exclusively on what happens in the fourth year, grade 12. This means that some schools escape accountability while other schools are unfairly penalized.
Here’s how: Imagine a student named Chase enters his local high school as a freshman and falls far behind in credits over his first three years. Then before his senior year, he transfers schools, successfully earning credits at the right pace. But since he fell behind earlier, he will not graduate on time. Despite progress in his senior year, Chase counts as a dropout under the 4-year rule. The previous school, having removed Chase from its books, is held harmless, and the consequences of three years of failure shift to the new school.
This circumstance hits alternative and non-traditional schools the hardest. For example, research shows that online schools take in large numbers of high school transfer students every year, including many who are credit-deficient and not on track to graduate with their four-year cohort. Unfortunately, the graduation rate is often used to brand these schools as failures.
According to Idaho’s State Department of Education, Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA) had a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate of 60 percent in 2016-2017 (up from 48.6 percent in 2015-2016) compared to the state average of 79.67 percent. Yet when looking at the cohort of students who enrolled in IDVA in grade 9 and stayed in the school for four years, 82 percent of those students graduated on time. Persistence matters.
The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate the federal government requires doesn’t account for schools like IDVA with a high student mobility rate, who serve large numbers of credit-deficient students. In 2015-2016, more than 48 percent of new seniors, 44 percent of new juniors, and 50 percent of new sophomores were behind in credits when they enrolled at IDVA. Few schools in Idaho face this kind of student mobility in their high school grades. It’s no wonder IDVA’s grad rate is lower than the state average.
IDVA’s reported four-year graduation rate is not an appropriate reflection of the school. Online schools like IDVA serve an essential purpose in public education and are helping at-risk kids, including some who have dropped out, earn high school diplomas. Just a few weeks ago, a former student’s mother wrote to the administration at IDVA about her son, Matthew, who graduated from the school in 2016 after his four-year cohort. Before enrolling in IDVA, Matthew was well on his way to dropping out of high school, but he flourished in online school.
According to his mother, Matthew discovered a passion for learning he did not know he possessed. Having fallen so far behind in his previous school, there was no way for Matthew to graduate on time, but through determination and perseverance he earned enough credits to graduate in 2016. In May, Matthew graduated from College of Southern Nevada with his 2-year Associate’s of Applied Sciences – Advanced Level Welder degree. He now has a great job with full benefits at a manufacturing company in Nevada.
But due to his extra time in school, Matthew counted as a drop-out in IDVA’s four-year cohort graduation rate calculation. Matthew is not the only young adult with a story like this. Hundreds of students across the state of Idaho have succeeded after transferring to alternative schools.
Policymakers should consider ways to collect and report more data on graduation beyond the four-year cohort rate. States should also measure annual student progress toward graduation. By capturing how many credits students are earning each year they are in high school, it would, in effect, make every high school year count (rather than only the fourth year) and hold schools more accountable. Additionally, states could measure the “on time” graduation of students who began and ended high school at the same institution. This would provide an even playing field for all schools to compare the success of students who entered their school in ninth grade and remained enrolled over four years.
In terms of graduation, parents, educators, and state policymakers should demand more information, not less. After all, the ultimate goal of our public education system is to help every student, regardless of need or academic history, graduate. When hard-working students take some extra time to pass high school, the four-year graduation rate doesn’t represent them — students like Matthew deserve better.
Written by Kelly Edginton, the Head of School at Idaho Virtual Academy.