Don’t Deify Graduation Rates

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The buzz about improving the high school graduation rate is becoming a roar. Governors’ children’s cabinets are picking this as the leading result indicator for youth, foundations are re-upping their commitments and youth organizations are recasting their wares to reflect better in this new accountability light.

High school graduation is a critical goal. Given the national effort to develop transparent and comparable measures across states and districts, it makes sense that the graduation rate be selected as the leading indicator of youth readiness.

Here, however, is the challenge: It must be positioned as a leading indicator, not as an end result.

What’s the difference? Results accountability guru Mark Friedman defines a result (or outcome) as “a condition of well-being for children, adults, families or communities.” An indicator is “a measure which helps quantify the achievement of a result.”

Does this difference matter? Very much, for at least four reasons.

* State and local leaders are relying more heavily on “results” statements to define priorities and track progress. It is critically important that these results lists reflect 21st century reality that, as I have argued for decades, “problem-free is not fully prepared.” Adopting high school graduation as a result without adopting any positive results that set the bar beyond high school is a step backward.

Consider this composite list of “results” adopted by various states: children born healthy, children ready for school, children succeeding in school, young people staying out of trouble, stable families, families with adequate income, safe and supportive communities. Can you find the holes in the developmental logic?

First, the only “deficit” result – “young people staying out of trouble” – is also the only result that applies primarily to teens, indicative of the low expectations held for them. Second, “children succeeding in school” suggests a K-12 focus at a time when some post-secondary education is seen as a requirement. Third, there is a big gap between the youth readiness results (finish high school, stay out of trouble) and the adult goals (stable, self-sufficient families). The list begs for some type of young adult result (such as, young adults being employed or enrolled in post-secondary education) that captures the continued effort needed to traverse the developmental space between the late teens and the mid-20s.

* State and local leaders recognize the interrelationship between academic and nonacademic outcomes as well as between “assets” and “deficits.” Used as an indicator, the high school graduation rate reinforces this trend. Used as a result, however, it threatens to reverse this trend.

Graduation rates work beautifully as an indicator of a big result (e.g., all youth ready for college, work and life). The measurement satisfies Freidman’s belief that indicators should have high communication power, proxy power and data power.

First, the graduation rate is a positive, universal milestone that all youth are expected to achieve. Second, the “youth in trouble” indicator correlates with on-time graduation, which is also the gateway to college attendance, full-time, above-minimum wage employment, and pro-social adult behavior such as voting and forming families. And finally, graduation data are moving up the ladder in power among policymakers.

The rate is a powerful number that can be used to kick off conversations about what it takes to get to a powerful result for youth development. Use it as a result, however, and it leaves all other important indicators in a pile on the floor, to be used selectively or just plain forgotten.

* The graduation rate is a very good indicator, but it is not a great indicator. It is still a measure of persistence, not readiness. Businesses place little value on the high school diploma as a measure of competence because, until the No Child Left Behind Act, the diploma was not consistently linked to competence. Selecting the graduation rate as an indicator allows plenty of opportunity to revisit and improve it. Selecting it as a result locks it in as an end goal.

* The reason to select an indicator is to focus leadership attention on creating an action agenda to “turn the curve,” as Friedman puts it. The goal is not to track the problem, but to address it. Elevating a system-linked indicator, such as the high school graduation rate, to the status of result implies that there is a system-focused response: high school reform.

Selecting high school graduation as a result potentially relegates business, community-based nonprofits, other public systems and even higher education to simply follow the K-12 system’s lead. This is not the signal to send, given that one-third of young people don’t graduate on time and another one-third graduate unprepared for the next challenge.

Bottom line: High school graduation is a forward-focused indicator but a backward-focused goal. Youth service providers and youth advocates need to learn the lingo and get into the game to make this point.