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“All Means All” When It Comes to High School Graduation: Measuring Extended-Year Graduation Rates

Nevasha Noble

The goal of the GradNation Campaign is to increase the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent, but we also recognize that 1 in 5 students do not graduate within four years (with much higher proportions in high-need communities). Focusing solely on four-year graduation rates discounts students who may need just a bit longer to graduate and can further perpetuate the inequities that persist within and across school systems. 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which passed in December 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, gives states the opportunity and flexibility to use new school accountability metrics. Thirty-five states have taken advantage of this flexibility by including extended-year graduation rates in their accountability and improvement systems. 

Why it is Important to Measure Extended Year Graduation Rates 

Measuring 4-year graduation rates is essential for having a standard way to compare the progress of all states. However, it does not have to be the only measure for tracking high school completion, which is why many states have taken the initiative to include extended-year graduation rate data in their accountability systems. 

Many factors contribute to a student taking longer to graduate. Some students cannot accrue the needed credit hours for graduation because of competing pressures like working while in school, dealing with health issues, and taking care of family members. For other students, graduating in four years might be challenging because of educational gaps, special needs, or language barriers. 

Including extended-year graduation rates alongside four-year rates as an accountability measure in state ESSA plans helps to ensure that students who may need extra supports and time to graduate are not discounted. Even more importantly, it incentivizes states to ensure these students are not left behind. Providing the necessary supports for these groups of students to reach high school graduation can prevent high dropout rates and help re-engage students who need extra time and help to graduate. 

According to the Learning Policy Institute’s policy brief, Making ESSA’s Equity Promise Real: State Strategies to Close the Opportunity Gap Implementing an Extended-Year Graduation Rate, focusing solely on 4-year graduation rates “removes incentives and recognition for schools to keep working with struggling youth to help them graduate in 5 or 6 years.”

What’s Working in States

The Colorado Department of Education has been measuring extended-year graduation rates since before ESSA was introduced, and the state has experienced steady improvements in its extended-year rate. 

In fact, based on the Colorado Department of Education’s graduation rate data, their extended-year rates are higher than the on-time rate. The graduation rates for the class of 2016 were: 4-year rate of 78.9 percent, 5-year rate of 84.1 percent, and a 6-year rate of 85.6 percent. 

The Colorado Department of Education found that too many students in the state were not reaching the high school graduation milestone in four years for many reasons. Based on the 2017 State Policy Report, “on average, 10 percent of each graduating class is still enrolled in high school”. If given more time, these groups of students could have a greater chance of graduation, which is why the state decided to start measuring the extended-year rate. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stipulates that public education should be available to all children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21. If these groups of students are allotted more time to graduate, measuring extended-year graduation rates is important to capture whether they are achieving such an important milestone—high school graduation.  Another example of a student population that may benefit from extended-year graduation rates is English language learners. English language learners often need more time to reach fluency, so giving them more time and support helps them to not only learn the language but also meet their graduation requirements. 

Two key ways to translate a focus on extended-year graduation rates into helping more students reach the high school milestone are to incentivize schools to prioritize the extended-year graduation rate and ensure that students not only graduate but have opportunities that prepare them for postsecondary pathways. In Colorado, students who take longer to graduate can take advantage of the many postsecondary pathway programs that the schools offer. For example, there are multiple concurrent enrollment programs that provide students with opportunities to attend college courses and graduate with a high school diploma and college degree. For example, in the PTECH program students graduate with both a high school diploma and an industry recognized associate’s degree in addition to gaining relevant workplace skills. Through this program, students receive intensive student support services, mentoring, internships, and other workplace educational experiences. It is open to all students with a special focus encouraging enrollment of students who are socio-economically and racially diverse, the first to attend college in their family, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Although we may want students to graduate in four years, that is not the reality for all students. If we want to ensure that all students achieve the high school graduation milestone, we must not leave any student behind and should track success through extended-year graduation rates. It is a sure way to close equity gaps and help each and every student reach the important milestone of high school graduation.