Don’t Waiver on Graduation Rate Accountability

Published jan. 12, 2012

The U.S. Department of Education is now considering applications from 11 states seeking flexibility through waivers from up to 10 provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Regardless of one’s position on the waiver process itself, the Department is to be commended for its commitment to college and career readiness. However, as the waiver process proceeds, states and the Department must take care to preserve progress already made on graduation rate accountability.

It is clear from the 11 state waiver proposals that accountability indices and multiple measures are the future of federal accountability—and we at JFF have been supportive of a move to multiple measures. We’re particularly in favor of using college credit accrued through dual enrollment as one measure of college readiness. All 11 states submitted some form of an accountability index—a type of system that allows for multiple measures of achievement to be combined into one index, with each element of the index carrying a certain percentage weight.

According to a brief released by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the 11 states are proposing to use a combination of indicators, including assessments, graduations rates, and other measures of college- and career-readiness. The waiver process has, for the first time under NCLB, made the use of multiple measures in federal accountability possible, and we applaud states for looking at meaningful ways to implement such measures.

However, we are concerned that many of the proposed state accountability indices will have the unintended consequence of watering down graduation rate accountability. The risk is that states will not place sufficient weight on graduation rates to make them meaningful, thus taking a step back from the rigorous graduation rate goals and targets set by states as a result of the 2008 graduation rate regulations.

Case in point: None of the 11 states applying for a waiver is proposing an index with graduation rates counting for more than 33%, and most weight them at less than 25%—meaning schools could easily reach proficiency in many of these states without improving graduation rates. Even more concerning: In most of the indices, assessment measures would far outweigh the graduation rate measure, reducing the incentives instituted only a few years ago to keep lower performing students in school. This comes in the same year that the new higher graduation rate goals and targets recently set by states are slated to be included in their federal accountability systems for the first time.

JFF agrees with the Alliance for Excellent Education’s recommendations this week that states should (and the Department should encourage and guide them to):

  • Use graduation rates, achievement measures, and other measures of college and career readiness in their accountability systems;
  • Give graduation rates the same weight as the sum of achievement measures to incent schools to not only graduate more students, but also ensure that more graduates are college and career ready.

Additionally, we believe that in order for schools and districts to have incentives to serve the students facing the most barriers to success, states often need the ability to apply for 5- or 6-year graduation rate flexibility, or an “extended year” rate. We hope that the Department takes this opportunity to remind states that such flexibility options exist. The extended graduation rate approach allows states to receive the flexibility they need to ensure that students with multiple barriers do graduate within a reasonable amount of time, while still maintaining the significance of the graduation rate measure and the incentive to graduate each student.

By using these policy guidelines, the Department of Education can help states head off what, in years to come, would undoubtedly be characterized as an unfortunate step back from graduation rate progress made. This is no time to waiver on graduation rate accountability.