Do All High School Graduates Count? Unintended Consequences of State Accountability Policies for English Learner Students
Russell W. Rumberger, Professor, Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, UC Santa Barbara; Director, California Dropout Research Project
Julie Sugarman, Senior Policy Analyst for PreK-12 Education, Migration Policy Institute (MPI)
Margie McHugh, Director, National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, MPI
High school graduation is an important personal achievement as well as a key indicator of school system effectiveness and a community’s potential economic vitality. For almost a decade, all U.S. states have used a common method to calculate the four-year graduation rate as part of their state school accountability system. This measure counts for a significant portion of a high school’s performance rating, which can gain it public accolades or identify it as a school in need of improvement. Even as rates of on-time graduation have improved, English Learners (ELs) post far lower rates than the national average.
This webinar marks the release of a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report that investigates the unintended consequences of using the four-year graduation rate for school accountability. The report shows that ELs are more likely than other student subgroups to graduate in five or six years. However, most EL-serving high schools do not get credit for these graduates, as 60 percent of the nation’s ELs are served in states that only count the four-year rate for accountability purposes. Attaching high stakes to the four-year rate may also result in perverse incentives not to welcome high school EL newcomers out of fear these students will be unable to complete a degree in four years and thereby pull down the school’s performance rating. Schools may also mechanically redesign their instructional programs to “ensure” newcomers graduate in four years without evidence such a trajectory is possible or more educationally beneficial than a five- or six-year path.
Webinar participants also discuss the implications of California’s graduation rate policy choices. California does not use extended-year graduation rates for federal accountability, and—for state reporting—has adopted an alternative method for calculating graduation rates for continuation schools that serve older teenagers at significant risk of dropping out. Together, these policies may incentivize administrators to push ELs and other students who need more time to graduate out of traditional high schools and into alternative school settings. Speakers also discuss policy options states can consider to broaden the definition of a successful high school by using multiple graduation rate indicators.