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Calculating High School Graduation Rates

Paul Warren January 19, 2016
HighSchoolHallwayEmpty

We are republishing this blog post to correct the number of students in the Class of 2014 who are not counted in a school graduation rate and the graduation rate of alternative high schools. As a result, the impact of including alternative school student data in the graduation rates of regular high schools also changes.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was recently signed into law by President Obama, aims to offer states more flexibility in designing K–12 accountability programs than they had under No Child Left Behind. But one of ESSA’s lesser known provisions—a requirement that states identify and assist high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent—might force California to revise the way it deals with graduation rates at alternative high schools. Currently, the California Department of Education (CDE) excludes students attending most of the 640 alternative high schools across the state from its graduation rate calculations. Alternative schools—also known as district continuation schools, county community schools, and district and charter alternative “schools of choice”—are designed to help dropouts, students with behavior problems, pregnant or parenting teens, and truants. About 75 percent of the students at alternative high schools are juniors and seniors, according to CDE data.

ESSA requires states to calculate “cohort” graduation rates—which involve tracking students from 9th through 12th grade. The cohort graduation rate means something different at alternative schools than it does for regular schools. Students often transfer to alternative schools because they are struggling in school. CDE also reports that students attend alternative schools for an average of less than four months. Even so, CDE assigns students who transfer to alternative schools to those schools’ cohorts. Since CDE does not calculate graduation rates for most alternative schools, 59,300 high school seniors—or 12 percent of the Class of 2014—are excluded from statewide data (although these students are usually included in their districts’ graduation rates).

There are two main options for including all students in California’s school graduation rates. First, graduation rates for alternative schools could be published, although it is likely that their rates would be much lower than those of regular schools—and would fall below ESSA’s 67 percent threshold. According to PPIC estimates, alternative school graduation rates average about 37 percent, far below the statewide rate of 81 percent. The problem with this option is that, given the role alternative schools play in helping at-risk students, these low rates do not necessarily mean that alternative schools are underperforming.

The other option is to include alternative school students in the graduation rates of their “home” high schools. After all, students generally spend most of their high school years at their regular high school, attending alternative schools for short spells. In fact, excluding a large proportion of at-risk students from the calculation of school graduation rates does not accurately represent the performance of the state’s high schools. Using 2013–14 data, we estimate this option would reduce “regular” high school graduation rates an average of 6 percent. CDE’s current graduation rate methodology appears to be at odds with the federal approach to accountability. It also makes it more difficult for educators, parents, and other interested community members to get accurate information about the success of local schools. Moreover, the methodology creates an incentive for educators to send low-performing students to alternative schools. Thus, there are several important reasons to revisit the way CDE calculates school graduation rates.

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