Governors Agree on Education Data Guidelines

Published September 1, 2005

After a report from the watchdog group Education Trust delivered a stinging rebuke this June, the governors of 46 states and Puerto Rico agreed on July 17 to adopt a standard formula for determining high school graduation rates. The agreement came at the National Governors’ Association (NGA) meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.

Along with representative of 15 education organizations, the governors signed Graduation Counts: A Compact on State High School Graduation Data, a one-page document stating “the quality of state high school graduation and dropout data is such that most states cannot fully account for their students as they progress through high school.”

The compact further states the data collected in recent years have been inconsistent and inaccurate, and that as “education reform efforts increasingly focus on high schools, the quality of graduation and dropout data becomes even more critical.” According to the Education Trust’s report, Getting Honest About Grad Rates: How States Play the Numbers and Students Lose, the United Sates high school graduation rate is now 17th among developed nations.

The Education Trust is a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing academic achievement in schools.

“I think this is a big step forward,” said Jay Greene, an education reform expert who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “It’s great to see that the governors have seen this as a problem. The big question is: Will they follow through? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Accurate Numbers Needed

The compact grew out of a report produced by the NGA’s Task Force on State High School Graduation Data. That task force included state higher education executive officers, as well as representatives from several teacher unions and education organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, Business Roundtable, Education Commission of the States, Educational Testing Service, Education Trust, and National Education Association.

Christopher Swanson, formerly with the Urban Institute and author of several studies on high school graduation data, was a member of the task force. Swanson said his research has shown significant variations in the methods used for calculating graduation rates.

“It might seem simple to calculate graduation rates, but there are several ways to do it,” Swanson said, adding that different calculation measures can yield results that differ by as much as 14 percentage points.

Until now, Swanson said, most states have thought their graduation rates hovered between 85 and 87 percent, when in fact they are “closer to 70 percent,” he said, with the problem being their dropout rates have been undercounted.

“It’s promising that the states have taken this step,” Swanson said of the compact. “The challenge is to move on this in a timely fashion.”

Data to Be Standardized

By signing the document, the governors committed to “take steps to implement a standard, four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate,” “lead efforts to improve state data collection,” “take steps to implement additional indicators that provide information … about outcomes for students,” and “report annual improvement on their annual state high school graduation, completion, and dropout rate data.”

The task force’s report, Graduation Counts, describes the importance of having accurate data regarding graduation and dropouts and describes the challenges of obtaining accurate and comparable data. The report notes the need for accurate data was compounded by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires states to use graduation data as one measure of Adequate Yearly Progress.

Difficult Process Ahead

Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, applauded the agreement. “It’s good news and a credit to reformers like Jay Greene who have worked on this issue.”

However, the compact will “be very hard to implement because it will require states to implement more sophisticated data systems than they already have,” Petrilli said. “There’s a lot of work to do before implementing these systems.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) is an associate professor of political science and humanities at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

For more information …

The compact and Graduation Counts are available online at

See also “Study Exposes Severity of School Dropout Problem,” School Reform News, January 2002, available online at