Colorado Ed Board Votes to Improve Graduation Rate Accuracy

Published March 1, 2006

The Colorado State Board of Education voted January 12 to require school districts to use a more precise method for calculating graduation rates in order to comply with a state law passed last June.

Colorado no longer will allow districts to count students as “transfers” unless the school has received notification of enrollment or a student-records transfer request. Additionally, students obtaining a General Educational Development (GED) certificate must be considered “completers” as opposed to transfers or graduates. District-reported graduation rates are included in yearly School Accountability Reports to parents and available online to the public.

“You can’t solve a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, and that’s exactly what we were doing with regard to high school dropout and graduation rates,” said Jared Polis (D-At Large), vice chairman of the state education board and author of key components in the proposal.

Numbers Vary

“We knew that a large number of ninth-graders weren’t graduating four years later, but the official statistics didn’t reflect that,” Polis continued. “With these new rules we will solve the mystery of the disappearing students.”

Previously, graduation rates could be inflated by listing students in GED programs as graduates or transfers. Likewise, missing students could be listed as transfers rather than dropouts. According to a January 12 article in the Denver Post, graduation figures for the state ranged from 61 percent to 82 percent each year, depending on the methodology.

To achieve an accurate representation of a school’s graduation rate, the National Governors Association Task Force on State High School Graduation Data recommends students who opt to take a GED rather than earn a diploma not be considered as graduates. In order to avoid counting dropouts as transfers, the task force recommends states require transfer requests for documentation.

Addresses Inconsistencies

Concerned about inconsistencies in Colorado’s data, state Sen. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) and Rep. Terrance Carroll (D-Denver) introduced Senate Bill 91 to require the State Board of Education to standardize graduation and dropout rates by November 15, 2005. The bill passed and was signed by Gov. Bill Owens (R) in June 2005.

The Colorado Department of Education then developed a proposal to require districts to acquire documentation from receiving schools or parental notification of enrollment in order to list students as transferred. Under the original proposal, parental notification of intent to enroll elsewhere was enough for districts to list students as having “transferred” to another school. The staff proposal also allowed districts to classify GED students and GED recipients as transfers, which would have enabled districts to remove those students from the high school graduation rate denominator, and thus inaccurately inflate the graduation rate.

Polis’s amendment to the board proposal removed parental notification from the list of acceptable documentation, except for students leaving high schools to begin home schooling. Under Polis’s amendment, students enrolling in private schools, or in schools outside of Colorado or the United States, must be documented by either a request for records from the receiving school or some other written notice from the receiving school that the student has indeed enrolled. For public school transfers within Colorado, districts must receive a student records transfer request or the student must show up in the state’s student tracking system as enrolled in another public school. Such documentation is considered by national experts as more reliable.

Another amendment by Polis directed districts to consider GED test takers who pass the GED as completers rather than transfers, thus keeping them in the denominator for the graduation rate, in order to report graduation rates more accurately.

‘Giant Step’ Forward

The Polis amendments garnered bipartisan support. A vote to remove the first of his amendments lost 3-3, with one Republican joining two Democrats in support of the amendment and two Republicans joining one Democrat opposing. Two members were not present. The final proposal containing both amendments passed 5-1.

Bob Schaffer, a Colorado state education board member for the 4th Congressional District and former congressman, supported the Polis amendments. Past reported graduation rates, he said, have “never been more than a hypothetical. As such, Colorado’s school leaders have been denied a crucial data set necessary to the construction of ambitious statewide school-improvement strategies.

“The new reporting rules represent a giant step toward more precise management of all government-owned schools in Colorado,” Schaffer said. “The state is now closer to developing a more complete understanding of its customers–which ones graduate, which ones leave, where they go, and why.”

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Denver.

For more information …

The Colorado School Accountability Reports are available online

Graduation Counts: A Report of the NGA Task Force on State High School Graduation Data is available online at