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NCLB Implementation Report

State Approaches for Calculating High School Graduation Rates

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Document date: October 01, 2003
Released online: October 01, 2003

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) holds states and the districts and schools under their jurisdictions accountable for student performance; and it does so according to standards that considerably exceed the requirements of earlier federal legislation. While student achievement must be the primary indicator of performance under NCLB, statewide accountability systems are also required to incorporate one additional academic indicator. At the secondary level, this must be the high school graduation rate (HSGR). The states outlined their plans for implementing the federally-mandated statewide accountability systems in the Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbooks, which were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. This report presents the results of an analysis of these Workbooks and focuses specifically on provisions related to the definition and measurement of high school graduation rates under NCLB.

The process of obtaining approval for these NCLB accountability plans has proceeded in a series of steps. All states submitted an initial draft of their Workbooks by January 31, 2003, the federally-mandated deadline. The state plans were then evaluated through an external peer review process over the next several months. These peer reviews were conducted on site by three-member teams consisting of independent non-federal experts in the fields of educational policy, reform, and statistics. Recommendations stemming from the peer review reports, in many cases, resulted in further discussions between the federal Department and the states and in revisions to the state plan drafts initially submitted. As of June 10, 2003, all state plans have been approved (at least provisionally) by the U.S. Department of Education.

Follow-up letters sent by the Department to chief state school officers indicate that further action on the part of the states may be required before they are considered to be fully in compliance with the requirements of the law. However, a review of these letters conducted for this report suggests that the Department is requiring few modifications of substance to the approaches for measuring HSGR outlined in the released state plans. Letters to twelve states, for example, contained no reference of any kind to graduation rates. Overall, the letters received by a majority of states (34) indicated that aspects of their plans were not fully compliant with the provisions of NCLB that pertain to graduation rates. In each of these cases, however, the Department was willing to exercise its authority to grant approval of these components as a means of permitting an orderly transition from the requirements of the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) to those of No Child Left Behind. (IASA is the name by which the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act authorized prior to NCLB is commonly referred.) In this way, the Department provided states with considerable flexibility for implementing the law in two major areas. First, states were authorized to use interim HSGR indicators that fall short of certain aspects of NCLB's statutory requirements (provided that they intend to employ a more suitable measure at some point in the future). Second, states were also permitted to use an alternative indicator for the purposes of disaggregating results for individual subgroups (until a suitable HSGR indicator is available). The review of follow letters also indicated that the accountability plans in 12 states will not be eligible to receive final approval from the Department until provisions related to HSGR are formally adopted as state policy.

The review summarized in this report investigated the state accountability Workbooks provisionally approved and publicly reported by the U.S. Department of Education as of June 2003. These documents were obtained from the U.S. Department of Education website. This report focuses on one specific issue in detail—state definitions of high school graduation rates and their strategies for constructing a graduation rate indicator. In most cases the information reported below has been derived from Section 7.1 of the accountability Workbooks. For some states, however, it was also necessary to reference additional documentation cited in (although not included with) the plan in order to resolve certain questions regarding details of the state's approach for measuring HSGR. As noted above, it is possible that further revisions to the state plans may be made as a result of on-going negotiations between the states and the Department of Education as well as state-initiated efforts to refine their accountability system. The Urban Institute plans to continue monitoring NCLB implementation in order to identify important changes in state approaches to accountability over graduation rates.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Education | Governing

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