State to Take Tougher Look at Graduation and Dropout Rates

John Mooney | March 22, 2011 | Education
Self-reporting of numbers, permitted until now, leave critics skeptical

As New Jersey continues to revamp what is required of students to graduate, high schools this summer will face more stringent calculations on exactly what are their graduation and drop out rates.

The state for the first time will do its own math for graduation rates for every high school, using the statewide student database to measure the number of 2011 graduates against the number of incoming freshmen in 2007, with adjustments for any transfers in or out.

The calculation, required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, had been pressed since 2008 but was self-reported by school districts, something that left some critics skeptical.

Even the state itself issued a caution in the latest New Jersey School Report Card release last month, putting this unusual caveat with the listing of individual school’s graduation rates:

“The New Jersey Department of Education is well-aware of the possible inaccuracy in dropout rates and graduation rates that have traditionally been based over the years on districts’ self-reported numbers of their dropouts and graduates.”

By this reporting, the state had a 94.7 percent graduation rate last year, which depending on the measure would put it highest in the country by nearly 10 percentage points.

The new calculation will be published in the 2012 state report cards, officials said. Raising the stakes even higher, the newly calculated graduation rate will also be used for the first time as one of the measures whether a school meets the federal requirement of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP).

Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday said the new calculation would be an improvement, but added it was only one step he hoped to take to raise the rigor of high schools.

“The new, federally mandated graduation rate calculation provides a far truer picture of where we are on this critical metric, a metric that is highly predictive of numerous life outcomes,” he wrote in an email.

“But changing our measuring stick alone is not enough,” he said.

“As importantly, we need to raise our standards and adjust our assessments such that a high school degree truly means that our graduates are college- or career-ready.”

Cerf has yet to lay out any specific plans for high school graduation requirements, but the state is already adopting new national standards in language arts and math and revamping its testing to be more subject-specific.

But that process has already hit its share of bumps. For instance, the state last fall announced it was delaying the start of a planned graduation requirement that every student pass a new biology test. Barely half of the students passed the test last year.