Can We Get a Truly Comparable Picture of State Graduation Rates?

A Friday quickie for readers to chew on. Back in late November, the U.S. Department of Education released the first-ever data where we could truly compare the rates at which students in different states are graduating high school on time. Unfortunately, Colorado’s 74 percent graduation rate put us in the bottom third.

But now that we can finally look at all states based on a common measure of how well students are completing their secondary education (more than 43 years after we put a man on the moon), someone has to ask: Just how accurate is the comparison? In an insightful new EdFly blog post, Florida’s Mike Thomas reminds us that different graduation standards can seriously cloud the picture. After highlighting some different headlines that take to task certain states’ graduation output, he notes:

What you don’t see is Massachusetts and Florida required students to pass exit exams before graduating, ensuring some base level of knowledge, while the top three states did not. Nor did the New England states that finished above Massachusetts.

So while Iowa may be doing the best work at keeping students in school, it may not truly be getting the best educational outcomes. On the other end, New Mexico may not really be at the bottom of the heap (especially considering the fact that data from Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma don’t show up). And Colorado actually might not be mired in the bottom third. Florida and Massachusetts might move up the scale dramatically — which would fit with other pieces of evidence.

The next task then for some education researcher is to craft an effective formula that factors in the important differences of standards and expectations. Can it be done? And if it can, how much difference would the adjusted model show? I don’t know the answer to either question. But hopefully it won’t take 36, or 43, years to find out.