updated 11/10/2007 12:36:04 AM ET 2007-11-10T05:36:04

If Congress doesn’t get the job done, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says she’ll consider using her authority to require states to report high school graduation rates in a more uniform and accurate way.

“I think we need some truth in advertising,” Spellings said in an interview, referring to the hodgepodge of ways states now report graduation data.

States calculate their graduation rates using all sorts of methods, many of which critics say are based on unreliable information about school dropouts.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have drafted proposals to better gauge how well high schools are doing at getting students diplomas, and doing it on time. The changes are part of a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law, but that bill’s progress has stalled amid disputes over unrelated testing and teacher pay issues.

Spellings said if that standoff persists, her department has the power to address the reporting of graduation rates. “I think it can be done through regulations,” she said.

Consensus for better standards
There is an overwhelming consensus among politicians, educators and academics that states must do a better job. Spellings pointed to a two-year-old agreement by the nation’s governors to adopt a common method of calculating high school graduation rates.

It calls for states to develop systems that track individual students throughout school and record whether they transfer, drop out or graduate. In general, students who graduate on time and with regular diplomas would count toward a state’s graduation rate. Research indicates students who take extra time to graduate or get alternatives to diplomas, such as a GED, generally don’t do as well in college or the work force.

So far, about dozen states are using a method like the one endorsed by the governors to report their graduation rates.

Under No Child Left Behind, states may use their own methods of calculating graduation rates and set their own goals for improving them. Critics say that’s a loophole.

Some states, for example, give themselves passing grades as long as they make any progress at all on graduation rates from year to year.

Report: States' methods flawed
States’ methods of counting graduates also are flawed and lead to overestimates, according to reports by both the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, another group focused on the issue.

For example, Florida — which does track individual students — includes those who receive GED certificates in lieu of diplomas when calculating its high school graduation rate.

And New Mexico counts the number of enrolled 12th graders who graduate as its rate. That is problematic, because most dropouts leave school before their senior year.

The state has started to track individual students through the education system but doesn’t yet have enough data to report its graduation rate that way, New Mexico Secretary of Education Veronica Garcia said in a telephone interview. “It’s not because we don’t believe in it or desire it,” she said.

North Carolina used to report the percentage of graduates who completed high school on time, completely ignoring those who dropped out early. That gave the state a 95 percent graduation rate. When the state recently switched to the tracking method backed by the governors, its rate plummeted to 68 percent.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, a member of the education committee, said other states should be pushed to take the same tough step. “Let us for once compare apples and apples,” he said.

Most common method
The most common methods used by states to calculate graduation rates assume there’s good data on the number of dropouts, something that generally doesn’t exist. A student who stops coming to school, for example, often is assumed to have moved and gets counted as a transfer, when in fact the student may have quit school.

“If you use dropout data, you need to be very concerned,” said Chris Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which has published studies on the issue.

Using federal data, researchers such as Swanson generally estimate the nation’s on-time graduation rate at about 70 percent. For minorities, they say it drops closer to 50 percent.

The Education Department uses a formula for estimating the graduation rate of each state by comparing diplomas given out against the enrollment figures for that class in earlier grades. In nearly all cases, the federal estimate is lower than the state-reported rate.

“A lot of people are being exposed to data that are misleading. Graduation rates look higher than they really are in a lot of cases,” said Swanson, who also has developed a method for estimating graduation rates.

Johns Hopkins University has used another method, and was the subject of a recent Associated Press report that generated a flurry of debate nationwide.

The Hopkins researchers compare the number of 12th graders enrolled at a school to that class’ size three years earlier, in 9th grade. Unlike the federal estimate, the Hopkins method looks at individual schools’ enrollment data as reported to the federal government.

The Hopkins researchers named about 1,700 schools that are losing at least 40 percent of their kids between freshman and senior year, a category researcher Bob Balfanz termed “dropout factories.”

Unfair way to calculate rates?
Some school officials complained that the Hopkins method was unfair because it penalized them for class losses due to transfers. Balfanz and Swanson say methods like this generally produce valid estimates because nationally, transfers in and out of schools tend to offset each other.

However, the Hopkins researchers said Friday they were taking about a dozen schools off their list because of data errors or unique local circumstances, such as a newly built high school that siphoned off enrollment from an existing school.

Balfanz said his method remains useful as long as the federal government isn’t looking at school-level data and as long as states use widely different calculations. But Balfanz said it would ultimately be best if states tracked individual students carefully as they move through the education system.

Spellings agreed. “You can’t solve a problem that you haven’t diagnosed,” she said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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