New Jersey’s officially reported high school graduation rates are about to change. This fall the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) will begin implementing a new federally-mandated formula for calculating graduation rates. The new formula will change how the rates are measured, rather than reflect any sudden change in the number of students earning diplomas. But the change will nonetheless raise a number of policy and public information issues.
A new statewide graduation rate for 2010-11 will be calculated this fall, while individual school and district rates will be reported on school report cards published next February. Disaggregated rates for student subgroups will also be calculated. Eventually, progress toward a statewide target rate for all high schools is supposed to become part of the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability system.
NJ’s graduation rates, which have led the nation in recent years, have long been a source of both pride and contention.
Last June, Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count survey reported that NJ had the highest overall graduation rate in the country at 87%. The state’s graduation rate was more than 15 points above the national average and included the No. 1 rate for white students (91%), the No. 1 rate for Hispanic students (68%), and the No. 2 rate for African American students (73%). This widely cited survey estimates graduation rates for all 50 states by using a “cumulative promotion index” based on grade level enrollments and the number of diplomas issued.
The federal regulations requiring all states to phase in a new formula are based on a 2005 agreement by the National Governor’s Association. The revised rate relies on student level data that tracks each individual student’s progress towards graduation. The formula, designed to produce a more accurate indicator based on a uniform method, divides the number of graduates by the number of 9th graders four years earlier, adjusted for transfers in and out. States that have already phased in the new system have generally seen lower estimated rates.
NJ’s overall ranking is likely to remain high under the new formula. But some districts in the state, especially high-needs districts with large numbers of students who disappear from student rolls, are likely to see significant declines. Large districts with high student turnover have typically done a poor job of distinguishing between student transfers and dropouts.
The new system requires more reliable documentation proving that students listed as “transfers” have enrolled in other programs leading to a diploma. Without such documentation, these students remain on their original school’s enrollment lists and are counted as dropouts. The new formula also relies on a statewide data system with an ID number for every student, rather than on self-reported data from districts.
Improved graduation data is long overdue. Official graduation rates often have been inconsistent and based on unreliable data. They have tended to overstate results, particularly in high poverty urban districts where large freshman classes frequently produce much smaller numbers of senior graduates four years later.
Knowledgeable observers predict that NJ’s graduation rate under the new formula could be about 5% lower than current estimates. But the drop could be much more dramatic in some districts. In 2009, for example, Newark calculated a 54% graduation rate using the new formula. Under the old formula still in use by NJDOE, the official rate was 88%. Such wide disparities are likely to surface this year, especially in districts with poor records of tracking dropouts and weak data systems. It will be important to remember that changes in the graduation rate represent a change in the formula used for reporting, not a drop in the number of students graduating from one year to the next.
The rollout of the new graduation rates will be a major test for the state’s data system, NJ SMART, (NJ Standards Measurement and Resource for Teaching). Plagued by delays and technical issues for years, NJ SMART finally has the multiple years of student level data needed to begin using the new formula. But significant challenges remain, including monitoring the variety of “exit codes” used to track student movement and auditing the documentation needed to verify transfers. Districts with high numbers of students who move out of state or out of the country, beyond the reach of NJ SMART, will face special challenges.
As with standardized test scores, the use of data to impose penalties and assign blame—instead of to describe problems and design solutions—can create incentives to distort and misreport the statistics. In the past year, for example, Governor Christie has claimed that Newark’s graduation rate is only 29%, a false claim that was readily debunked. Avoiding misrepresentation of the new graduation data will be as important as using it wisely.
Director, Secondary Reform Project
973 624-1815, x 28
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications