President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act came up for reauthorization last year, but Congress couldn’t win agreement and it looks like the law may remain untouched this year, too.
Out of frustration, Bush instructed Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to implement some of his proposed changes in the act administratively. Normally, these kinds of end runs around Congress are a bad idea, but one of the proposals is both vital and overdue.
After a period of public comment, Spellings plans to promulgate a common formula for the states to calculate high-school graduation and dropout rates. The states will be required to use that formula in the 2012-2013 school year.
Right now, the states use their own formulas, or wild guesses, for figuring graduation rates. The one feature they seem to have in common is that they understate the number of dropouts.
Nationally, the graduation rate is assumed to be 70 percent; 50 percent or less in major urban areas. In Detroit, only one in four leaves high school with a diploma.
One thing the No Child Left Behind Act established was the willingness of school systems to try to game the numbers to look better than they really were. Graduation rates are no exception. Some systems count only the percentage of seniors who graduate, omitting everyone who dropped out in the ninth, 10th or 11th grade. Some states counted GED recipients as graduates, and others counted as graduates dropouts who only promised to get a GED.
A common formula will make for transparency, a reliable database and state-by-state comparisons. For some school districts, it will not make for a pretty picture.
Spellings’ proposal is hardly politically controversial. In 2005, the National Governors Association endorsed a common formula and proposed the relatively simple measure of dividing the number of graduating seniors by the number of ninth-graders who entered the school four years earlier.
She should have proposed a common formula earlier, and now she should make haste to get it on the books before the clock runs out on the Bush administration.