Four Year Graduation Rates and the Persistence of Perverse Incentives

Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, the US Department of Education established the rule that all states must use the same definition of graduation rates: the proportion of public high school students who graduate with a regular diploma 4 years after starting the 9th grade. I’m all for a commonly shared definition. Before the change, each state measured graduation differently and there was no way to compare effectiveness of interventions between states without a clear definition. But what’s the reasoning behind limiting the definition to graduation in 4 years? If it takes a student five years to graduate, have they learned less? Has our system failed that student? Is the diploma worth less in the long-run?

My experience teaching students at-risk for not graduating on time has shown me that students living in poverty and those with disabilities are more likely than other groups of students to take longer than four years. A new report from the National Center on Education Statistics supports my observation that economically disadvantaged students, students with limited English proficiency, and those with disabilities have the lowest on-time graduation rates. So with yet another measure, schools that serve higher proportions of these groups of students are determined to be lower performing schools than those that serve more affluent and more able populations, despite the findings that we have raised overall graduation rates for all groups to record high rates.

Since our educational system has moved to the corporate-style accountability model, it seems that any targets we set establish perverse incentives. Schools that measure effectiveness based on test scores become testing factories, and have often found to doctor the numbers, if not cheat outright. Charter schools that are under pressure to show high college entrance rates have been found to edge out students with disabilities and those without strong parental support.

While I was in England, Department for Education officials became concerned with schools that had a large spread in the outcomes of low-achieving versus high-achieving students. So they added an accountability measure that penalized schools that didn’t close the achievement gap between the two groups. The government goal was to get schools to raise achievement for the lowest attaining students, but some schools began to see that it would be easier to reduce services for the highest achieving students and reduce the gap by lowering the achievement of the top students. The persistence of perverse incentives knows no national boundaries.

I’m concerned that the target of four year on-time graduation reduces school incentives to provide intensive services for those students who need the support most. Sure, families, students, and teachers see the value of continuing to pursue a diploma even after four years, but  if a student is counted as a non-graduate whether they drop out or take five years, there are incentives to divert resources away from those who need more time. I’ll give three examples of students I serve who illustrate how the four year deadline is not a valid indicator of success.

1. Students with physical and mental illnesses: People who live in poverty have higher rates of physical and mental health problems, making this an issue that disproportionately effects schools in impoverished communities. I teach a troubled student who has made several serious suicide attempts this year. After each, he has missed school while in the hospital and recovering, and has had periods when his medications have made him slow and inattentive, causing his grades to fluctuate wildly throughout the school year. Right now, survival is more important to him and his family than academics. He won’t pass enough classes to complete the requirements for a high school diploma this year, but if he continues in school and his psychiatric treatment goes well, he could complete his diploma requirements next year. I face this same scenario each year, either with a student undergoing treatment for an illness such as cancer, one recovering from a serious accident, or one needing a mental health related hospitalization.

2. Teen mothers: Teen pregnancy is another issue that disproportionately effects high poverty schools and communities. I serve young mothers who also struggle academically, adding a particular challenge to on-time graduation rates. During pregnancy, many of these young women miss school for doctor’s appointments and related problems and find themselves falling behind academically even before the birth of the child. The mothers are typically given homebound services a few hours per week for six to eight weeks after birth. If they struggle with academics, they are rarely able to keep up with work. When they return, they are already far behind and have difficult time catching up even if they find consistent childcare and can return to school regularly. I have served several who have needed an extra semester or an extra year to complete a diploma, and many others who have not been able to finish. There are successful models of intervention programs, but they are resource intensive and may take extra time to complete.

3. Academic disability: I once taught a young man with autism who didn’t meet graduation requirements by the end of his senior year, so was issued a special education diploma when he walked across the graduation stage. The Tennessee special education diploma is similar to a certificate of attendance, and means that this young man counted as a non-graduate for our school system. But he and his family wanted him to continue pursuing a regular diploma the next school year. He succeeded in passing all the requirements by the next spring and traded the special education diploma for a regular diploma. He, his family, and his teachers were proud of his achievement. This should have been a great triumph for our school system, but since he didn’t earn the diploma within four years, he is counted as a non-graduate on our data.

Colleges and universities report both four-year and six-year graduation rates, and many people who want to accurately report the percentage of college students who complete with a degree use the six year graduation rate, since we recognize that financial, social or academic concerns sometimes slow a student’s progress toward a diploma without removing the commitment to finishing the degree.

In schools with compulsory education to the age of 18, we usually want to push students to graduate before they turn 18 so that we can enforce attendance and make them complete the diploma before they have a choice to quit. But we should have another option for students who want to earn a diploma, but need more time and support. We should develop incentives that reward schools that provide extended intervention to support those who want to graduate – even if it takes longer than four years.


Stetser, M., and Stillwell, R. (2014). Public High School Four-Year On-Time Graduation Rates and Event Dropout Rates: School Years 2010–11 and 2011–12. First Look (NCES 2014-391). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved [30 April 2014] from


2 thoughts on “Four Year Graduation Rates and the Persistence of Perverse Incentives

  1. Education shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. Unfortunately, the system of counting graduates has to be standardized, even though not all people all standard. The story of the boy with autism is very inspiring though, thank you for sharing.


    • It’s true that we have to standardize if we are going to be able to compare, but I think we could include more than one measure so that we have a more detailed analysis of what’s really working for all groups of students. Thanks for the feedback.


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