Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Back to Ask A REL Archived Responses

REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

November 2019

Question:

What research is available on approaches to measuring high school graduation rates?



Response:

Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on approaches to measuring high school graduation rates. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Curran, B. (2005). Graduation Counts: Redesigning the American high school. A report of the National Governors Association Task Force on State High School Graduation Data. Washington, DC: National Governors Association. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED489215

From the ERIC abstract: “America’s high schools play an integral role in preparing students for college and work in the 21st century. High school success is more important than ever for the health of our economy, for civic life, and to ensure equal opportunity. Unfortunately, the quality of state high school graduation and dropout data is such that most states cannot accurately account for their students as they progress through high school. Until recently, many states had not collected both graduation and dropout data, and those that have collected these data have not generally obtained accurate information. Therefore, as education reform efforts increasingly focus on high schools, the quality of graduation and dropout data becomes even more critical. The National Governors Association, under the leadership of NGA Chair Governor Mark R. Warner of Virginia, convened a Task Force on State High School Graduation Data to make recommendations about how states can develop a high-quality, comparable high school graduation measure, as well as complementary indicators of student progress and outcomes and data systems capable of collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data states need. The task force members found substantial consensus on which to build their findings and recommendations.”

Curran, B., & Reyna, R. (2009). Implementing Graduation Counts: State progress to date, 2009. Washington, DC: NGA Center for Best Practices. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED507634

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2005, all 50 state governors made an unprecedented commitment to voluntarily implement a common, more reliable formula for calculating their states’ high school graduation rates by signing the National Governors Association (NGA) Graduation Counts Compact. Four years later, progress is steady. Twenty states now report that they use the Compact formula to calculate their high school graduation rate and publicly report the data. Five more states plan to report the Compact rate later in 2009, eight more in 2010, and 12 more in 2011. Three additional states have not indicated to NGA a date by which they will report using the Compact rate, but will presumably meet a new federal reporting deadline of 2011. Two others have requested a waiver extending the federal deadline beyond 2011. Twelve of the 20 states reporting the Compact rate also report that they use the Compact Rate to meet the graduation rate requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Up by six since 2008, 42 states now report they have the data systems needed to track individual students and more accurately calculate the high school graduation rate using the NGA Compact rate. Not all of those have tracked a cohort the full five years from eighth grade (which identifies first-time ninth graders) to high school graduation. Eighteen of the 20 states that are reporting the Compact graduation rate also report additional indicators of student outcomes. Nineteen of the 20 states report disaggregated graduation rate data for different student subgroups, such as minorities, disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.”

Curran, B., & Reyna, R. (2010). Implementing Graduation Counts: State progress to date, 2010. Washington, DC: NGA Center for Best Practices. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED514360

From the ERIC abstract: “In 2005, the governors of all 50 states made an unprecedented commitment to voluntarily implement a common, more reliable formula for calculating their state’s high school graduation rate by signing the Graduation Counts Compact of the National Governors Association (NGA). Five years later, progress is steady. Twenty-six states say they have reported, or will have reported by the end of 2010, their high school graduation rate data using the Compact formula. Nineteen additional states plan to report the Compact rate by the end of 2011, and three more states plan to report this rate by the end of 2012. Two states received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to report the Compact rate after 2012. In total, 48 states will report the Compact rate for the cohort graduating in 2011. Eighteen of the 26 states reporting the Compact rate also say they use the Compact rate to meet the graduation rate requirements for adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Up by seven since 2009, 49 states now report they have the data systems needed to track individual students and more accurately calculate the high school graduation rate using the Compact rate. Not all of these states have tracked a cohort the full five years from eighth grade through high school graduation. Twenty-one of the 26 states reporting the Compact graduation rate also report additional indicators of student outcomes. One additional state plans to do so in the future. All 26 states report or plan to report disaggregated graduation rate data for different student subgroups, such as minority students, disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. Twenty-one states have set graduation rate goals at 90 percent or higher.”

DePaoli, J. L., Balfanz, R., Atwell, M., & Ingram, E. S. (2017). Building a grad nation: Progress and challenge in raising high school graduation rates (Annual Update 2017). Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED585520

From the ERIC abstract: “This year signifies two key milestones in the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates. First, the release of the 2015 federal graduation rate data marks five years since states began reporting the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). The ACGR, for the first time, created a common formula for collecting graduation rate statistics across states and provides data on individual student subgroups down to the school and district levels. With five years of ACGR data, students continue to graduate at higher and lower rates and how this varies by state, and where graduation rate gaps are closing and persisting between student subgroups. Second, there are now just five years of federal graduation rate data reporting between now and the culmination of the GradNation goal to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by the Class of 2020. This report examines areas of concern in high school graduation rate reporting, including measurement errors, cases of schools and districts gaming the system, and issues around lowering diploma standards, as well as other areas of progress and remaining challenges on the path to 90 percent.”

Kuenzi, J. J. (2018). The Every Student Succeeds Act: Accountability for schools with low graduation rates (CRS Report R44700, Version 6. Updated). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED593574

From the ERIC abstract: “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comprehensively reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Among other changes, the ESSA amended federal K-12 educational accountability requirements for states and local educational agencies (LEAs) receiving ESEA funds, including those regarding the identification, support, and improvement of high schools with low graduation rates. In addition to new accountability rules, the ESSA provided the first definition of the high school graduation rate in federal education law. States and LEAs have been reporting their rates using the same definition, originally laid out in 2008 regulations, since the 2010-2011 school year. The national graduation rate for the Class of 2016 was 84.1%–the highest rate recorded using the new methodology. The graduation rate for the Class of 2011 was 79.0%. This national-level improvement has been accompanied by improvements in nearly every state and across all reported groups of students, including all racial and ethnic subgroups, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. Still, graduation rate gaps persist among several student subgroups. At the state level, 27 states were above the national average in 2016 and 23 were below. Three states graduated fewer than 75% of their students, nine states graduated 75%-79.9%, eleven states graduated 80%-84.9%, seventeen states graduated 85%-87.9%, and ten states graduated 88% or more. Importantly for ESSA accountability implementation, analysis of 2014-2015 school-level data reveals that as many as 16% of high schools may fail to graduate at least one-third of their students. Thus, there are potentially thousands of high schools nationwide that may be identified for intervention in the coming years.”

McFarland, J., Cui, J., Rathbun, A., & Holmes, J. (2018). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2018. (NCES 2019-117). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED590552

From the ERIC abstract: “The report draws on a wide array of surveys and administrative datasets to present statistics on high school dropout and completion rates at the state and national levels. The report includes estimates of the percentage of students who drop out in a given 12-month period (event dropout rates), the percentage of young people in a specified age range who are high school dropouts (status dropout rates), and the percentage of young people in a specified age range who hold high school credentials (status completion rates). In addition, the report includes data on the percentage of students who graduate with a regular diploma within four years of starting ninth grade (adjusted cohort graduation rates) and data on alternative high school credentials. This report updates a series of NCES reports on high school dropout and completion rates that began in 1988.”

Sass, T. R. (2008). High school diploma and GED attainment in Florida (Research Note 1). Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED509657

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief calculates graduation rates for the state of Florida using longitudinal data. The authors describe their measurement strategies and compare them with the state’s official measurement procedures. They calculate the diploma and General Education Development (GED) attainment rates of six separate cohorts of Florida 9th graders who began high school between 1995/96 and 2000/01. They then present rates of both diploma receipt and GED receipt at four years and in later years. The results show an increasing trend in graduation rates in the state over the period studied and a substantial bump at five years, with growth flattening out after that time.”

Seastrom, M. M., Chapman, C., Stillwell, R., McGrath, D., Peltola, P., Dinkes, R., et al. (2006). User’s guide to computing high school graduation rates, volume 1: Review of current and proposed graduation indicators (NCES 2006-604). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED493141

From the ERIC abstract: “The first volume of this report examines the existing measures of high school completion and the newly proposed proxy measures. This includes a description of the computational formulas, the data required for each indicator, the assumptions underlying each formula, the strengths and weaknesses of each indicator relative to a true cohort on-time graduation rate, and a consideration of the conditions under which each indicator does or does not work. The second volume of this report provides documentation of the technical work that the Department leadership used to select an interim graduation rate.”

Seastrom, M. M., Chapman, C., Stillwell, R., McGrath, D., Peltola, P., Dinkes, R., et al. (2006). User’s guide to computing high school graduation rates, volume 2: Technical evaluation of proxy graduation indicators (NCES 2006-605). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED493142

From the ERIC abstract: “This report consists of two volumes, the first takes an in-depth look at the various graduation indicators, with a description of the computational formulas, the data required for each indicator, the assumptions underlying each formula, the strengths and weaknesses of each indicator, and a consideration of the conditions under which each indicator does or does not work. This second volume of the report is more technical in nature. The analysis presented in this volume provided the technical basis that Department policymakers used to identify an interim graduation indicator. Thus, using the information from Volume 1 as a backdrop, Volume 2 uses the best available national and state data to provide estimates of the various indicators. While this provides some basis for drawing comparisons across the indicators, the comparative analysis relies most heavily on student record data from two individual states. The state data represent the universe of students enrolled in public schools in each state over a sufficient number of years to compute the true cohort rate. The NISS panel recommended the true cohort rate as the only rate that will yield an accurate on-time graduation rate. The true cohort rate is thus used as the ‘gold standard’ for a comparison of the performance of the various graduation indicators for the two individual states. The analysis of the state student record data then served as a basis for a related analysis of proxy graduation indicators computed for all 50 states and the District of Columbia at the national and state levels using NCES Common Core of Data.”

Stetser, M. C., & Stillwell, R. (2014). Public high school four-year on-time graduation rates and event dropout rates: School years 2010-11 and 2011-12. First look. (NCES 2014-391). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED544798

From the ERIC abstract: “This National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) First Look report introduces new data for two separate measures of 4-year on-time graduation rates as well as event dropout rates for school year (SY) 2010-11 and SY 2011-12. Specifically this report provides the following: (1) Four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) data reported by state or jurisdiction and, for the first time, a national estimated 4-year cohort graduation rate; (2) Averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR) data by state or jurisdiction and a national estimated AFGR; and (3) High school event dropout rate data by state or jurisdiction and a national estimated event dropout rate. Both the AFGR and ACGR are 4-year on-time graduation rates that provide measures of the percent of students that successfully complete high school in 4 years with a regular high school diploma. Event dropout rates provide a measure of the percentage of students who drop out in a single year. The tables in this report present descriptive information for the United States and for individual states and jurisdictions. The findings chosen for this report provide only a few examples of how the graduation and dropout data may be used. Compared to other measures of graduation rates, the ACGR is considered the most accurate measure available for reporting on-time graduation rates (Seastrom et al. 2006b). A 4-year ACGR is defined as the number of students who graduate in 4 years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for that graduating class. The term ‘adjusted cohort’ means the students who enter grade 9 plus any students who transfer into the cohort in grades 9-12 minus any students who are removed from the cohort because they transferred out, moved out of the country, or were deceased (34 C.F.R. § 200.19). This First Look provides users with an opportunity to access SY 2010-11 provisional data that have been fully reviewed and edited, and SY 2011-12 preliminary data that have been subjected to a limited data review and editing. Neither set of data have been available publicly prior to the release of this report.”

Sugarman, J. (2019). The unintended consequences for English learners of using the four-year graduation rate for school accountability. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED598110

From the ERIC abstract: “Graduation from high school is an important achievement for students, and one that has implications for their future educational opportunities and earnings. For the last two decades, graduation rates have also been among the metrics used to evaluate school effectiveness under federal law, with the aim of ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education. The stakes for schools and districts are high--including school prestige and risks to educators’ reputations and employment if a school is perceived as falling short. Under the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015’ (ESSA), all states use the same formula, known as the adjusted cohort graduation rate, to calculate how many students graduate from high school within the standard four years. Because states are not required to report the number of students who graduate after five or more years, many state accountability systems do not give schools credit for these graduates. The high stakes attached to the four-year graduation rate can have unanticipated and undesirable consequences for English Learners (ELs), as this report demonstrates, because these students are more likely than their peers to graduate after a fifth or sixth year. Among the most concerning: some high school administrators may turn away those who arrive as older teenagers, despite their eligibility to attend free public school, for fear that their enrollment could damage the school’s graduation rate. And while research shows the importance of giving ELs access to grade-appropriate content while they learn English, some schools may feel pushed to accelerate newcomers’ learning to maintain a four-year graduation trajectory, even when an extended timeline and additional support might be a better fit. When it comes time for ESSA’s reauthorization, policymakers will have the chance to revisit how graduation rates are defined and given weight. The challenge, the author writes, will be finding a way to identify schools that are truly underserving their students, while preventing the undue penalization of others that serve students with more complex learning needs.”

U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Every Student Succeeds Act high school graduation rate: Non-regulatory guidance. Jessup, MD: Author. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED578682

From the ERIC abstract: “Student graduation from high school with a regular high school diploma is an important indicator of school success and one of the most significant indicators of student college and career readiness. In addition, there are substantial economic benefits to high school completion. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the employment rate for young adults who had completed high school (67 percent) was higher than the employment rate for those who had not finished high school (51 percent) in 2015. This non-regulatory guidance provides States, Local education agency (LEAs), and schools with information about how to implement the graduation rate requirements in the ESEA. Section A of this guidance clarifies the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) definition and other key terms. Section B discusses requirements for calculating the ACGR. Section C identifies common issues related to implementation and reporting of the ACGR.”

Methods

Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Averaged freshman graduation rate”

  • Federal regulations calculating graduation rate

  • “Graduation counts”

  • “Graduation rate” formula

  • “Graduation rate” “measurement techniques”

  • “High school graduates” formula

  • “High school graduates” alternative

  • State approaches for calculating high school graduation rates

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.