If Johnny or Susie Cannot Read or Write … Neither Will Graduate from High School

By 11/30/2012

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Congratulations to the Obama Administration for releasing, for the first time, state-by-state information on high school graduation rates. We now know — from an authoritative source — how well each state does in getting 9th graders to graduation day within four years.

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It was less than a decade ago that University of Arkansas scholar Jay P. Greene was excoriated for putting together his best estimate of the dismal graduation rates in states and school districts throughout the country. But what was then condemned as a flawed, right-wing undertaking has blossomed into a bipartisan movement that now has won the full support of the U. S. Department of Education. Congratulations, Jay Greene, on putting the topic on the policy agenda, and congratulations, Arne Duncan, on getting the national education data collection system to work the way it should!

So the question arises: Do graduation rates from high school have anything to do with student proficiency in reading and writing in 4th and 8th grade? Or are those pencil and paper tests meaningless piles of paper, as the accountability critics have been saying? Should we abandon standardized tests required under No Child Left Behind?

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To find out if there is any connection between test performance and graduation rates, I have correlated state graduation rates just reported by the Department of Education with state proficiency reading and math rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as presented in a report I wrote with Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann (Globally Challenged, also available in article form as “Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?“) in 2011.

Though the state-by-state correlation between reading and math proficiency and graduation rates is not perfect, it is a substantial, significant 0.58 in reading and 0.52 in math. As you can see in the graphs, in those states where a higher percentage of students are reading and math proficient in 4th and 8th grade, it’s likely that the graduation rates will be higher as well. A ranking of each state on its proficiency and graduation rates is also provided below.

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If the results are not surprising, they underline the critical importance of continuing to track student test performance as the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind moves forward.

– Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • David Britten says:

    Now let’s correlate all of this data with equitable and adequate school funding schemes in each state.

  • jeffrey miller says:

    Sorry Paul, this is all still a work of empirical fiction. But of course, you can fit a line through data points. The whole point of measuring anything is to measure the phenomenon against a predetermined scale. The measurement instrument is calibrated and designed to measure what one expects to find.

    If you think velocity is something worth measuring, you will gather data along two axes of time vs. distance. In social science research the variables may be of a different nature but don’t pretend you have found correlation or even causation when you may have only confirmed your bias.

  • David Britten says:

    Graduation within 4 years is a concept that doesn’t square with the latest education reform movements to personalize learning and allow students to learn at their own pace. Some students come to high school behind and score lower on tests. Many of them will graduate on time (4 years per NCLB dictate) but many will need more time. They’ll likely still graduate within a year or two which is consistent with the growing number of years college undergrads are taking to earn their degrees (that’s another story that I feel is more related to economics than academics). So the data in these charts is skewed because it only considers students graduating within 4 years (should schools get extra credit for students that graduate in 2 or 3 years?).

  • JB says:

    Yet states where 1/3 or more of the 8th graders are not proficient in both math and English graduate 75%-In California some pressure groups-with aid and comfort from the CTA sued to lower the standards for the High School exit exam(CAHSEE)-students who had A’s and B’s in English and math could’nt pass a test based on 9th grade English and 8th grade arthmetic. I smell social promotion, grade inflation, cheating and featherbedding.

  • I, Teacher says:

    I agree with JB; there is a huge push in my district to grant credit to students who have not met standard in order to protect our numbers and our public’s perception of our schools.

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