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Indiana leading the way with better high school graduation rate calculations

Indiana's relatively new cohort-based high school graduation rate calculation is providing better data, which indicates its value to other states across the country. But the calculation reveals other issues that should be examined.

The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) in the Indiana University School of Education issued those conclusions in a policy brief titled "Calculating High School Graduation Rates."

Terry Spradlin

Terry Spradlin

"The number we now have, we feel, is the best possible number that the state can generate," said Terry Spradlin, CEEP associate director for education policy, in reference to the annual graduation rate calculations produced by the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). "It is a very reliable and accurate number."

Spradlin authored the report along with CEEP Director Jonathan Plucker and Kylie Stanley, undergraduate research assistant at CEEP.

Indiana adopted the cohort rate methodology in 2003, using student tracking numbers to account for the migration of students in and out of the cohort. This methodology dictates that school districts in the state account for all students entering grade nine through the students' senior year of high school. When the first results using this method became available for the graduating class of 2006, Indiana's graduation rate was calculated at 76.5 percent.

Using a leaver rate methodology that 32 states still use, Indiana's graduation rates during the previous three and a half decades ranged from just under 78 percent to as high as 91 percent.

The leaver calculation determines graduation rates by dividing the number of high school graduates by the total number of high school "leavers." The study authors say the leaver graduation data is so different that it can't be fairly compared to more accurate cohort data.

The old method included the number of students completing their General Education Diploma (GED) in the graduation rate, whereas the new method does not include these students in the graduation rate. The new methodology also reveals that a significant number of students -- 7.3 percent -- are still enrolled in school beyond their eighth semester, the number of semesters from ninth through 12th grade.

But the new rate could use some refining, the study authors found.

"One of the things we recommended was that Indiana add three-year complementary data, so we know what students have graduated early," Stanley said.

She added that the Indiana cohort calculation does not account for some students who do not graduate on time with a high school diploma. That may include students who earn a GED, a special education certificate, or a non-diploma course completion certificate.

"Unless you complement the data, we don't really know the situation," Stanley said.

Even considering such complementary data provided by the IDOE, the findings of the cohort data reveal significant achievement gaps between groups of students.

Nearly 80 percent of Caucasian students in Indiana graduated high school following the 2006-07 school year. In the same year, only 57 percent of African American students graduated. Similarly, just 63 percent of Hispanic students and 70 percent of Native American students earned diplomas.

"So we know from this data that we have a dropout problem that is especially pervasive for African American students," Spradlin said. "We're suggesting that they (state education leaders and policymakers) take a stronger look at dropout prevention issues for those students in particular."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed has established a dropout taskforce to consider the matter this summer.

Only 16 states use the cohort calculation to determine graduation rates, but the federal government is putting pressure on all states to adopt a method similar to that of Indiana.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings stated last month that she would try to implement a uniform federal method for calculating high school graduation rates by 2013 to help the states and federal government more accurately set annual rates for graduation rate improvement. Her action resulted from the reticence of many states to change, most likely because of the dramatic drop-off some states will experience in the reported graduation rate.

"It does take a lot of outreach to help people understand that, no, this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison (regarding the new cohort calculated rate and the old calculation)," Spradlin said.

The report recommends the states that cannot now report cohort data at least abandon the leaver rate many of them now use.

The state of Indiana is ahead of most other states in implementing the cohort data calculation, the authors said, because all parties worked well towards making the changeover happen. Since the cohort rate system was established in 2003, the Indiana General Assembly has passed three additional bills intended to refine and fine tune the methodology, including Senate Enrolled Act 111 passed during the 2008 session.

"Other states really do have a commitment to the cohort system," Stanley said, "but they're moving at a much slower pace than Indiana."

The full report may be viewed at: http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/PB_V6N5_Spring_2008_EPB.pdf.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. To learn more about CEEP, go to http://ceep.indiana.edu.