That challenge is expected to go away within the next five years, with US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings proposing new rules that would require states to assign each student a unique ID number. This will facilitate tracking from the time a student enters 9th grade until he graduates or drops out of school.
Spellings' call – which mirrors an agreement from the National Governors Association – will force every district to face up to the reality of a more scientific graduation rate, and quit hiding behind more positive estimates.
Washington state assigned a unique ID to every student four years ago, so this year's senior class will be the first with four years of data, so the 2008 graduation rate will be based on the method Spellings wants to mandate for all states.
State officials don't know if the new method will help or hurt Washington's steady 70% on-time graduation rate, said Joe Willhoft, director of assessment for the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
But, Willhoft adds, the point of the effort is to come up with a number that tells the truth.
One of the facts covered up by graduation rate estimates is that only about one half of minorities graduate from high school, while those without a diploma face a bleak future. No Child Left Behind was supposed to focus on the inequalities in the nation's public schools, but has done little to improve graduation rates.
The federal government has offered grants to improve state education departments' data systems, which may be used to pay for a system to track students by unique IDs, said US Education Department spokesman Chad Colby. The federal government gave a total of US$62.2 million to 13 states in 2007 for data systems, which can cost millions.
New York is also in the process of adopting the new approach, and state officials expect the more accurate numbers will be significantly lower in some cases because many schools used an index that didn't account for students who dropped out in ninth and tenth grades.
Spellings' proposal mandates calculating graduation rates by following each 9th grader for four years in every state by the 2013-14 school year.
“Her approach allows one year to prepare and four years to implement, which is a reasonable approach,” said Willhoft of Washington state.