by Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Education Studies
John Locke Foundation
Indeed, it took several years to get to this point. In 2005, the nation’s governors signed the Graduation Counts Compact of the National Governors
Association. The compact was a voluntary agreement to calculate and report statewide graduation rates using the four-year cohort graduation
rate. Three years later, what began as a voluntary agreement became a mandate under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) law. Federal regulations required states receiving NCLB funds to begin reporting disaggregated state, district, and school graduation rates following the 2010-11 school year. This year, the U.S. Department of Education required states, territories, and federal education divisions to report their graduation rates using the cohort method. The District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Education, Puerto Rico, and all but three states (Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) have done so.
So, what does the ranking tell us? First, money can’t buy you higher graduation rates. Top dog Iowa spent nearly $8,000 less per student than
second place Vermont and over $2,300 less than runner up Wisconsin. North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas had relatively low per student expenditures, but
all three were among the states with the highest graduation rates. North Carolina trailed those states but had a slightly higher graduation rate than
big spenders like New York and Rhode Island. Arizona spent $2,000 less per student but matched North Carolina’s graduation rate.
Second, Midwestern states, as a group, outperformed the rest of the nation. Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Illinois reached the top ten boasting graduation rates between 84 and 88 percent. Kansas and South Dakota were not far behind. New England had a number of high performers,
including Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. A handful of Western states, most notably Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and
Alaska, struggled. Southern states were distributed throughout the ranking.
Third, the ranking tells us little about the reasons why some states excelled and some did not. Graduation percentages are straightforward. The factors
that produce them are not. Researchers acknowledge that empirical studies of dropout and graduation rates are costly, time consuming, methodologically challenging, and therefore rare. Christopher Swanson, the vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, rightly pointed out that it is “hard to put a stamp
on any particular explanation [of changes to graduation rates].” There is no apparent relationship between spending and graduation rates, but we cannot
say, with much certainty, why Iowa has a higher graduation rate than neighboring states Missouri or Minnesota, for example. The U.S.
Department of Education plans to release additional data, so there will be much more to say about this subject in coming months.