The NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) recently released new graduation rates for every high school and district in the state. The change was required by new federal guidelines. Education Law Center prepared the following FAQ to help explain the new graduation rates.

Why is NJ changing the way graduation rates are measured?

Federal regulations require all states to adopt a new formula for reporting graduation rates beginning with the graduating class of 2011. The new formula is supposed to produce more accurate data that can be compared across districts and states.

What is NJ’s new graduation rate? What was the old rate?

New Jersey’s official statewide graduation rate for the class of 2011 is 83%. For 2010, using a different formula, the NJ Department of Education reported a rate of 95%.

Does that mean the number of NJ students graduating high school went down last year?

No. The new rate reflects a change in the way graduation rates are measured, not a decline in the number of students earning diplomas. The number of NJ students receiving high school diplomas actually increased in 2011 to 95,185 from 94,979 in 2010.

So why did some news reports say that NJ’s graduation numbers went down?

When the media try to simplify education data, the results are often confusing. The graduation rate declined because the way it was calculated changed. Different groups of students were included or excluded according to the new rules. But comparing the new rate to the old rate mixes apples and oranges.

Can you give an example?

The new rate only includes students who graduate within four years. Students who stay in school, but haven’t graduated in four years count against districts in the new rate. In 2011, there were about 7000 NJ students identified by their districts as “continuing” in school, but not graduating. Under the old formula, these students would not be considered in the graduation rate calculations at all. But under the new guidelines, students who did not graduate in four years have the same impact on the overall graduation rate as dropouts.

As more years of data become available, the state can calculate graduation rates for longer periods and track how many students eventually earn a diploma in five or more years. Once the new rate is in place for several years, it will be possible to identify year-to-year trends and patterns. This year’s rate sets a new baseline for future comparisons. But as NJDOE officials told the State Board of Education: “Direct comparisons of the graduation rates from 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 are inappropriate.”

Is the new graduation rate more accurate?

Over time it should be. The new rate relies on a student-level database that tracks each student individually from the time they enter ninth grade. The old rate relied on various summary data reports that did not always account for every student.

But all graduation rates are only as reliable as the data they are based on. The long-term accuracy of the new system will be affected by both “data quality” issues and still pending policy issues.

What are some of those issues?

Districts will need to devote more time and resources to accurately entering and coding individual student information. Over the past year, the NJDOE had to review more than 7000 appeals from districts seeking to revise individual student data that affected the graduation rate calculations.

The new regulations also require districts to document student transfers more rigorously before removing a student from their rolls. This will be especially challenging for districts with high student mobility rates and large numbers of students transferring out of state or out of the country. Schools have limited resources to track such students. But unless the transfers are well documented and schools can show that a student has enrolled in another degree-granting program, the students will remain on the original school’s rolls and figure in graduation and dropout rate calculations.

How are special education and ELL students affected?

The federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allows classified students to receive special services up to the age of 21. By design, many of these students may take more than four years to graduate. Yet the new federal guidelines make no allowance for this in the new graduation formula rules. The same is true for English Language Learners, many of whom require additional years to graduate.

How did student subgroups do under the new calculations?

NJDOE reported the following 2011 graduation rates for subgroups:

Asian                                               93%

White                                               90%

Hispanic                                           73%

African American                               69%

Limited English Proficient                   68%

Economically Disadvantaged              71%

Students with disabilities                   73%

How does NJ’s graduation rate compare with other states under the new formula?

NJ has long prided itself on having one of the highest graduation rates in the country. New rates have not been reported for all states, so comparative national rankings are not yet available. The rates for most states will likely decline under the new formula, with NJ continuing to be near the top. The challenge will be to sustain NJ’s historically high graduation rates while closing gaps in opportunity and achievement for all students.

Why are graduation rates important?

Graduation rates are a strong indicator of a school’s overall effectiveness. They indicate how well a school is helping students meet the requirements for earning a high school diploma—a key step on the road to college and career preparation and productive citizenship. Young people who earn a diploma live longer, earn more, and have better health and employment outcomes and fewer encounters with the criminal justice system than those who don’t.

What’s the bottom line: are the new graduation rates an improvement?

Better data about graduation rates is long overdue. After many years of delays and problems, the NJDOE says the state’s student-level data system, NJ SMART, is ready to provide reliable information on a number of important education measures, including graduation rates, student academic performance, teacher experience, and other indicators. The roll out of new graduation rates will be an early test of NJ SMART’s expanded role.


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Press Contact: 
Stan Karp
Director, Secondary Reform Project
973-624-1815  x28

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Sharon Krengel
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