Congress May Act to Define Graduation Rate

Published October 1, 2007

Because accurate measures of dropout and graduation rates are so important for accountability purposes, and because states and local school districts have done such a deplorable job in reporting them, Congress is poised to take serious action.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced separate bills this summer that would require accurate information regarding dropout and graduation rates. Of the two bills, Scott’s “Every Student Counts Act” (H.R. 2955) is by far the more comprehensive and is more likely to be considered.

The bill aims to ensure all states measure graduation rates in the same manner. That will make it possible to compare graduation rates among local school districts and states. This information can then be used to help find ways to enable more students to remain in school.

Longstanding Problem

For decades, local school districts and state education departments have under-reported dropout rates and inflated graduation rates. Despite an accountability provision in the No Child Left Behind Act requiring graduation rates be reported accurately, and despite the fact that all 50 states signed the National Governors Association Graduation Rate Compact in 2005, governments continue to spew faulty data on this important topic.

“Sadly, dishonest reporting about graduation rates turns out to be widespread,” wrote Larry Uzzell in a 2005 Cato Institute policy brief.

According to several recent independent and reliable research investigations, the national average dropout rate is a staggering 33 percent, meaning one of three high school students does not graduate on schedule. And according to Time magazine, that figure approaches an alarming 50 percent for Latinos and African-Americans.

Streamlining Data

During the 2004-05 school year, more than 1.2 million high school students dropped out. According to the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, this amounts to one student dropping out of school every nine seconds.

The JustChildren program of Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center said more than 28,000 students in the state who enrolled as high school freshmen in 2000 did not receive a diploma four years later. JustChildren called for an investigation into state projections that 69,774 students would graduate in 2004. That is 29 percent fewer than the number of children who entered high school in 2000.

Breaking Monopolies

In a 2007 RAND Corporation article, “When Students Disappear,” John F. Pane concludes, “Students nationwide should be assigned unique and permanent identifiers to link them with their own records, and not the records of other students with the same name. The identifier must be recoverable if a student appears in a new school with none of his or her personal records.”

Although the current legislation would result in some improvement in the accounting of dropout and graduation rates, it fails to address the underlying problem, which is that the public school system is a de facto monopoly that provides limited options. As a result, over a four-year period millions of students walk away from a “free” education because it has so little to offer them.

Until that monopoly is broken up and students have market-based choices, high dropout rates will continue.

Richard G. Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.

For more information …

“No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy,” by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Policy Analysis No. 544, released on May 31, 2005 by the Cato Institute, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #17430.

“Dropout Nation,” by Nathan Thornburgh, Time, April 17, 2006:,9171,1181646,00.html

H.R. 2955, July 10, 2007:

“When Students Disappear,” by John F. Pane, RAND Corporation, February 21, 2007: