updated 6/23/2005 4:55:50 PM ET 2005-06-23T20:55:50

Most states are reporting lofty high school graduation rates that far exceed reality and mislead the public about how schools are performing, a private analysis found.

The majority of states — 36 of them — say 80 percent to 97 percent of their high school students graduate on time, according to state figures provided to the Education Department.

Those numbers show "rampant dishonesty," said Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, an advocacy organization for poor and minority students. The Trust reviewed the 2002-03 graduation rates that states had to provide this year.

A series of independent analyses shows the graduation rate across the states is closer to 70 percent, meaning almost one-third of students don't finish on time — or at all. The nation's governors have agreed, which puts their position at odds with their own state data.

Bush: 68 percent will graduate on time
Even President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have said this year that only 68 of every 100 ninth-graders will graduate on time. Yet only 11 states put their graduation rate somewhere in the 60 percent or 70 percent range, the new report finds.

"Every single day we do this, we further erode public confidence in the notion that public educators can be trusted," Haycock said. "It deprives the American public of the one piece of data they need to get excited about high school reform."

Three states and the District of Columbia reported no graduation rate data at all.

Inconsistent data collection methods
Under federal law, reading and math tests are the main way states must judge student progress, but high schools must also count graduation rates. States are generally allowed to calculate the rates however they want, which makes comparisons across states fairly meaningless.

The Council of Chief State School Officers plans to help states come up with a common system to collect and report data, said Scott Montgomery, the organization's chief of staff.

Montgomery took issue with the report's claim that states are playing with the numbers, saying, "I think it's a serious mistake to say that states are being dishonest in the way they're reporting graduation rates until we have real, common data to look at."

The federal government acknowledges that the lack of uniformity in graduation and dropout rates is a problem that confuses parents and casts doubt about how well schools are doing.

An Education Department task force has recommended that states track each group of ninth-graders to determine whether every student graduates in four years.

States can't track every student
But many states say they don't yet have systems to do that, or to distinguish between students who transfer and those who drop out. The department is now studying interim methods states may be able to use to improve their reporting.

"We are very concerned that the graduation data doesn't accurately reflect what's truly happening in the states," said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "The secretary has been highlighting the magnitude of high dropout rates as she presses the case for high school reform. ... It's absolutely vital that states get the necessary systems in place so parents and the public know the true extent of the dropout problem."

Haycock, though, said states have been allowed to skirt the dropout issue "under cover of a negligent U.S. Department of Education."

Most states have made a mockery of the requirement to raise graduation rates, she said, as 34 have set goals lower than the graduation rates they say they've already achieved.

At least two states, Alaska and Washington, have begun estimating their graduation rates more accurately, resulting in lower figures, The Education Trust found.

The group praised those states for honesty but singled out others for criticism.

North Carolina, for example, gets its rate by measuring the percentage of graduates who finish in four years. Under that method, the state reported a whopping 97 percent graduation rate. But because only graduates are reviewed, the state doesn't count a single dropout.

That will change next year when North Carolina begins reporting the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate on time, said Janice Davis, the state's interim superintendent of public instruction. In the meantime, she said, the state is accurately reporting what it measures, but also is aware that its measure "is misleading, and that is our not our intent."

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