• By Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2007

Dr. Albert CortezThe U.S. Congress is currently in the midst of deliberations about re-authorization of the latest version of the federal government’s major education legislation, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition to recommending funding for individual states for programs, such as Title I, the legislation usually incorporates changes or additions to existing federal policies that impact public education at the state, district and even the local school levels.

Current debates surrounding NCLB policies regarding state accountability for student achievement are one example of the tremendous affect that national policy can have on local educational efforts.

An important new issue that is emerging involves adding new provisions related to high school graduation. This is a departure from prior efforts that tended to be limited to reporting of high school dropout rates, which were in turn used to assess state progress and trigger accountability-related consequences.

The expansion of federal oversight areas to include consideration of high school graduation rates is considered an important positive expansion of existing federal reporting and accountability requirements.

As important as the determination of the number and type of students who drop out are measures to inform and target intervention priorities. All stakeholders, including policymakers, educators, parents and community leaders, can benefit from access to information about the number and characteristics of students who graduate from high school.

While in an earlier era completion of high school was not a critical pre-requisite to a good quality of life in this country, current workplace demands and a competitive world economy make high school graduation the new minimum requirement for accessing the American dream.

The current policy debates center on how much graduation-related information should be collected, how it should be verified and how it might be best used to motivate states, districts and schools to make graduation of all students a greater and more urgent priority.

In the past, getting accurate and verifiable estimates of the number of students who graduate from high school has encountered a whole array of resistance. This has included reporting of dropout rates that were considered by most to be inaccurate, unreliable and sometimes even misleading.

Thus, we can expect the federal efforts to generate valid reporting of state, school district and local school graduation rates to encounter extensive resistance that will emerge in varying forms.

For example, some will argue that it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect schools to graduate all students who enter high school. Barring very exceptional circumstances, however, who gets to decide which students should be excluded from graduation?

Though mouthing the belief that all students can learn, the state of Texas contradicted its stance by setting a target that no more than 5 percent of its students would drop out of high school, implying that a 95 percent graduation rate was an acceptable maximum. This raises the question of which children are to be excluded from the state’s graduation target.

At the federal level some plans call for an even more diluted 90 percent graduation target. And even this is opposed by some as being an unreasonable expectation.

Another critical example involves how states and school districts will be required to validate transfer student re-enrollment, a critical piece of information needed to calculate a local high school graduation rate for an entering freshmen class. Some favor a mere “assurance” from school officials that a student has indicated intent to transfer – without actual verification of the student’s re-enrollment in another high school.

Some current proposals require more stringent procedures, yet even those often stop short of written and certified evidence of re-enrollment. Such laxity of transfer verification requirements has been a major factor in making the existing Texas system of dropout calculation (which reports less than a 2.6 percent state dropout rate) non-credible among state policymakers, community groups and many educators.

As the federal policy around graduation counting and reporting and use in accountability procedures evolves, IDRA offers a set of key principles (see IDRA Principles), gleaned from past lessons learned, to assess these new efforts. These principles are based on the concept that all – not 95 percent or 90 percent – but all students should graduate from high school and that all steps necessary should be taken to assure a credible and verifiable determination of movement toward that objective.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of IDRA Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]