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High School Graduation, Completion, and Dropout (GCD) Indicators

A Primer and Catalog

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Document date: December 09, 2004
Released online: December 09, 2004

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).


High school completion is a fundamental educational process that holds important implications both for individuals and for educational systems. On the one hand, obtaining a high school diploma offers an individual a variety of advantages, including the expectation of more stable employment prospects, higher lifetime earnings, and the opportunity to continue one's education at the postsecondary level. On the other hand, an educational agency—a state public education system, school district, or individual school—might seek to gauge its effectiveness by determining the percentage of its high school students that earn a diploma or fail to do so. While there is considerable consensus around the value of high school completion, there is surprisingly little agreement regarding the methods in which high school outcomes could or should be empirically measured. In fact, limited attention has been devoted even to mapping out the variety of statistical indicators used to empirically measure these outcomes.

The purpose of this catalog is to provide a basic inventory of the various methods for estimating high school graduation, completion, and dropout (GCD) rates that are currently being used by federal governmental agencies and state education agencies (SEAs). It would not be possible in the context of this small-scale investigation to provide a complete accounting of all these methods. In the inventory, we identify and explicate over 70 distinctive GCD indicators. Given unlimited time and resources, it might very well have been possible to identify hundreds of statistical measures employed for purposes ranging from research to public information to accountability. Even at its present scale, however, we believe that this catalog serves to effectively document a considerable amount of the variability in contemporary approaches to measuring high school outcomes.

A mere inventory of statistical indicators will be of limited use without some means of systematically describing the salient aspects of these measures and classifying the various indicators into conceptually and practically meaningful categories. In fact, a lack of uniformity in the use of concepts and technical terminology has been something of a barrier to clearly communicating information and statistics related to high school completion and dropout. In some contexts, for instance, a meaningful distinction might be drawn between an individual who "completes" high school and one who "graduates." At other times these potentially distinct outcomes are treated interchangeably. A given technical expression can in turn be used in an inconsistent, unclear, imprecise, excessively broad, or overly narrow manner. The term "cohort," for example, may carry different connotations to researchers versus practitioners, to researchers in various disciplines, to different governmental agencies, or to a single agency depending on the context or application.

It will not be the goal of this report to devise a comprehensive or definitive taxonomy of statistical approaches to measuring GCD rates. Such an endeavor, if it were to be pursued conscientiously, would represent a major undertaking unto itself. However, a working classification system for these types of indicators is necessary for this report. Indeed, the act of constructing a catalog composed of uniformly structured entries for GCD indicators would itself imply the presence of at least a provisional scheme for conceptually identifying and organizing relevant information about those indicators.

This conceptual portion of the present investigation proceeds in a series of steps and constitutes what might be thought of as a primer on GCD indicators.

  • Outlining a basic conceptual framework that will assist in thinking rigorously about high school completion processes and addressing the challenges associated with empirically measuring graduation, completion, and dropout rates.
  • Utilizing this provisional framework in order to derive a set of categories for classifying various kinds of empirical GCD indicators. These categories will employ extent terminology where it is useful but will also seek to clarify ambiguities in current usage wherever possible.
  • Explaining key methodological issues associated with the measurement of GCD rates at a level of specificity that will be meaningful to researchers but also accessible to policymakers, educators, and other general audiences concerned with this issue.
  • Applying this provisional classification scheme in a consistent manner to develop catalog entries for actual GCD rate indicators. In other words, the conceptual stage of this investigation will directly guide the concepts and terminology used in the indicator catalog as well as the organization of the entries themselves.

The remainder of this report is organized as follows. Section 2 provides a brief discussion of the high school processes and outcomes of interest in this catalog. Section 3 describes various types of data systems from which an indicator can be developed. These data systems are represented visually using a contingency table approach that closely resembles the kinds of aggregated, group-level data from which many agencies calculate GCD rates. Section 4 discusses different kinds of "rates" and the way in which data considerations intersect with mathematical formulations to define a statistical indicator. Section 5 offers a brief overview of several of the major sources of data on high school outcomes. These are the sources from which the most prominent, publicly reported findings on high school graduation, completion, and dropout are derived. Section 6 describes the review process used to identify indicators included in the catalog as well as the format of the indicator entries themselves. Finally, Section 7 presents the individual GCD indicator entries.

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

Topics/Tags: | Education | Governing

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