March 1, 2024

Examining Graduation Rates Requires a More Comprehensive Approach

Author: Jeff Kwitowski
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The issue of public school graduation rates is often described in basic terms in an attempt to quickly and easily identify which schools are successful at graduating high school students.  But, in fact, it’s a much more complicated and nuanced issue.

Take for example the recent examination of online charter school graduation rates by Education Week.  It took a fairly simplistic view of the issue and drew conclusions without accounting for a number of important factors when comparing online charter schools to other schools.

It is impossible to draw accurate conclusions about the success or failure of online charter schools to graduate students without a more detailed analysis that accounts for demographics and student mobility. In Ohio, for example, online charter schools serve a higher population of at-risk students than the statewide averages, specifically 24% more economically disadvantaged students, 21% more students with disabilities, and 354% more mobile students.  Other state comparisons are relatively similar.

State data show a strong relationship between school graduation rates and mobility rates.  Research in Ohio, Oregon, and Michigan clearly shows that high-mobility schools, those with many students in and out of the school during those four years, have lower graduation rates.  This suggests that the four-year cohort graduation rate is more of a proxy for the underlying mobility of the student population rather than a measure of the effectiveness of a school to graduate students. A better analysis would compare the graduation rates of schools with similar mobility rates.

Yet not only do online charter schools have higher mobility rates, they also enroll significantly higher number of credit-deficient high school transfer students than other schools.  This is not just a claim, it is a fact.  For example, in six of the largest K12-partner virtual charter schools more than 50 percent of the new high school transfer students in 2015-16 entered credit-deficient and not on track to graduate with their four-year cohort.  Is it really the fault of a virtual charter school for not graduating a student “on time” when that senior transferred in with the credits of a sophomore?

This is why states should collect and report data around student mobility and the credit status of transfer students to new schools. Providing transparency about the movement of students between schools and their academic status upon enrollment could provide valuable insight that is currently unavailable to researchers or to the public.

Additionally, states should enact accountability policies that focus on student progress toward graduation for every school on an annual basis, rather than exclusively on what happens in the fourth year at the last school a student attends.  While not a replacement for the federally-mandated four-year cohort graduation rate, states should report an annual progress toward graduation metric that would show if students are accruing adequate credits each year and how effective schools are at moving students toward graduation.

The four-year cohort graduation rate metric is really just a snapshot of the student’s last school of attendance and fails to capture anything about what happens during the four years of high school.  But measuring annual progress toward graduation will make every student count, every year, for every school, and ensure all schools are held accountable even if a high school student chooses to transfer to another school.

Jeff Kwitowski
Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Policy

Jessica Shopoff
Accountability Specialist, K12 Inc.