Here’s How States Can Use Data to Improve Graduation Rates

Dec 14, 2015

What one factor is most responsible for the nation’s highest on-time high school graduation rate?

According to a new report, it all comes down to data. In Sealing the Cracks: Using graduation data, policy, and practice to keep all kids on track, the Data Quality Campaign says that state and national leaders helped raise graduation rates by prioritizing quality, comparable data about which students actually graduated and which ones fell through the cracks.

Most notably, state and national leaders implemented a single, high-quality, comparable cohort graduation rate across states—the ACGR. By using this data, setting ambitious goals, funding necessary interventions, and holding schools, districts, and states accountable for results, the report says policymakers helped raise graduation rates to the highest in history.

And yet, nearly 500,000 young people continue to drop out of school every year, a disproportionate number of them students of color, students from low-income families and students with disabilities. What can states do to keep these students from slipping through the cracks?

The report recommends that state leaders take the following three major steps:

1. Motivate action through leadership.

  • State leaders need to make graduation rates a priority. In Iowa, for example, state leaders have set the graduation rate goal at 95 percent. As a result, districts in the state are focused on supporting students in meeting that goal.
  • State education agencies should create internal structures and expand capacity. In Kentucky, the chief state school officer created an intra-agency strategy team to focus on college and career readiness and increasing the state’s graduation rate, checking in on their progress quarterly.
  • States should include their clearly reported graduation rates in their report cards, and “show their work,” like Maryland’s State Report Card.
  • State leaders should work together to develop a clear, unified strategy for explaining and implementing the cohort graduation rate. “In 2005, governors voluntarily called for shared rules and methods for calculating graduation rates across states,” the report says. “Ten years later, state leaders, such as governors and education chiefs, can once again use existing forums for collaboration to generate a shared call for needed clarity to address some of the areas where state practice varies.”

2. Support data use at the local level.

  • Help districts meet their graduation rate goals by setting clear expectations for improving graduation rates and providing resources, flexibility, and intervention support for those that are struggling to meet the mark
  • Provide districts with clear information about which students are included in their cohort. States should help districts have a clear sense of which students may have left and which students they need to reengage.
  • Encourage the use of early warning data systems or on-track systems to identify students who are at risk of not graduating. These efforts have already led to effective interventions, and states should support smaller districts that lack the resources to implement them on their own.
  • Prioritize policies and practices that help educators and school administrators understand the data. Kentucky’s early warning system tracks student attendance and sends letters to principals and district attendance officers about students who are missing too much school.

3. Prioritize data quality and comparability.

  • Train school and district staff to collect and use student data efficiently. “Districts have varying internal capacity to collect data,” the report says, “and staff need training on the mechanics of entering data and context on why those data are critical to supporting students.”
  • Include as many students as possible in ninth grade cohorts. According to the report, this ensures that students who may drop out are accounted for, improving the quality of the cohort graduation rate and the odds that the districts can re-engage the students.
  • Regularly audit school and district data collections and provide support as needed. The report says the federal government can support states and districts by providing states further clarity to increase comparability.

While the Data Quality Campaign’s report focuses on state interventions, it also emphasizes the roles of federal and district leaders. It says that federal leaders must make graduation rates a priority, while district leaders must provide educators with the data and resources they need to identify and intervene with struggling students and accurately track and input the correct data for state calculations.

All players, the report says, “must fully embrace their responsibility to take action to graduate all students ready for college and career. The goal of having high-quality, comparable graduation data is not an end in and of itself—rather it should be viewed as one critical tool to improving outcomes for students.”


For more information about innovative efforts to raise graduation rates, take a look at the GradNation State Activation Initiative.

To join the GradNation Activation Online Learning Community, send an email to Corey Benjamin at [email protected].