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7 Solutions That Would Improve Graduation Rates

This month we reported the findings from our nationwide investigation into the forces driving the nation's rising high school graduation rate. We found some solid educational approaches — and some questionable quick fixes. Since our stories appeared, the city of Chicago has responded to Becky Vevea's reporting and vowed to keep better track of students in its system. And the state of Pennsylvania has voted to delay linking graduation to its Keystone exams, a phenomenon that Kevin McCorry of WHYY pointed out was likely to lower the graduation rate.

We also got a lot of feedback from folks in the policy world who concentrate on just this issue. We decided to ask some of these experts for their thoughts on what can be done to improve how the graduation rate is tracked and reported — and how to ensure students are really succeeding.

Be Transparent.

"My view is that any calculation of rates should come with an asterisk. They should provide summary tables to the public to account for all the students who have left for each reason. Then the public could better understand where students are going." — Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor, California State University, Sacramento

Go "Moneyball."

"I'm struck by how much we know about people in sports and everything they do, and how little we know about kids. Obviously there's an uncomfortable intersection between our desire for clear data and questions of privacy and whose responsibility this all is." — John Gomperts, president and CEO, America's Promise Alliance, which publishes the Building a Grad Nation Report

Insist on mastery.

"The increased graduation rate is a welcome trend, and appears to be (in part) the result of 20 years of reform, including the testing, accountability and reading instruction reforms of the No Child Left Behind era. But juking the stats is a disgusting abdication of responsibility, and laughably easy credit recovery programs can be just as pernicious. If credit recovery and second chances are going to mean anything, they have to be about students actually learning the material required for a high school diploma." — Michael J. Petrilli, president, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Follow students longer.

"No. 1, there needs to be greater collaboration between data systems at the K-12 level and at the postsecondary level. In Baltimore, yes, we looked at our grad rate, but for our young people who stayed in the state of Maryland, we looked at how long it took them to graduate from college." — Sonja Santelises, senior vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, and former chief academic officer of the Baltimore public schools.

"For higher ed, we look at a six-year graduation rate, but for high school it's four. Massachusetts is among the leaders in looking at five- and six-year rates as well. Young people sometimes have to stop out to work or for other issues." — Gomperts of America's Promise Alliance

Look at more than just the grad rate.

"I don't know how a district can move graduation rates in authentic ways and have that be the only data point." — Santelises of The Education Trust

"Less obsession with just one number would probably be good." — Gomperts

"Emphasis on this one statistic masks variations that are quite important." — Russell Rumberger, professor of education, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Coordinate with colleges to create a meaningful standard.

"How do you make sure the grad rate is reflecting what increased opportunities kids should have as a result of graduating?" — Santelises

"What if what counted in a diploma in a state is what an institution of higher education in that state would recognize for admission?" — Gomperts

Personalize the problem.

In Baltimore, "We had the heads of student support, school safety, school counselors — 30 people in a room with the numbers flashed on a screen every two weeks. There are faces that match each one of those data points. We're responsible for every single kid in the system." — Santelises

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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