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NewsFlash: June 3, 2008

Education Week’s graduation rate estimates are “exceedingly inaccurate,” experts say

The methodology used in a new report on high school graduation rates from Education Week’s Diploma Counts project (to be issued June 4, 2008) came under criticism today from the authors of two different reports on how to accurately measure high school graduation rates. Education Week’s flawed use of data produces findings that understate the true U.S. high school graduation rate by 9 percentage points overall and by 14 percentage points for minorities.

Economics nobelist James J. Heckman and Paul A. LaFontaine are authors of “The American High School Graduation Rate: Trends and Levels.”  Lawrence Mishel and Joydeep Roy are authors of “Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends” and of “Using Administrative Data to Estimate Graduation Rates: Challenges, Proposed Solutions and their Pitfalls” being published by the Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) on June 4, 2008 (available after 2:00 pm on June 4 at See below for access to embargoed paper.

The following is the statement issued by Heckman, LaFontaine, Mishel, and Roy:

“In our examination of the data and methodologies available to estimates high school graduation rates we have found that insights can be gained from household surveys and from administrative data on student enrollment and diplomas granted. However, we find the measures of graduation rates in Education Week’s Diploma Counts project, computed from diploma and enrollment data, to be exceedingly inaccurate. The main problem is the assumption that the number of students enrolled in 9th grade is the same as the number of students entering high school. This assumption artificially lowers the estimates of current graduation rates, especially for minorities who are more likely to be retained (repeat 9th grade). This measure also artificially reduces the growth of the graduation rate over time because the practice of grade retention has grown over time, again, especially among minorities. The resulting errors are sufficiently large to artificially lower the graduation rate by 9 percentage points overall and by 14 percentage points for minorities. Grade retention also differs sharply across states and localities, distorting geographic comparisons. Last, these measures do not reflect the ultimate graduation rates of a cohort of students because the data do not capture diplomas provided by adult education and other sources than schools.”

About the Statement’s Authors:

James J. Heckman is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago and Senior Fellow of the American Bar Foundation  His recent research deals with such issues as evaluation of social programs, econometric models of discrete choice and longitudinal data, the economics of the labor market, and alternative models of the distribution of income. Professor Heckman has received numerous awards for his work, including the John Bates Clark Award of the American Economic Association in 1983, the 2000 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (with Daniel McFadden), the 2005 Jacob Mincer Award for Lifetime Achievement in Labor Economics, the 2005 University College Dublin Ulysses Medal , and the 2005  and 2007 Aigner award from the Journal of Econometrics. He is a member of the National Academy of Science, the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences  and a Fellow of the American statistical Society  and the International Statistical Institute.

Paul A. LaFontaine is a researcher for the American Bar Foundation and the Center for Social Program Evaluation at the University of Chicago. His current research focuses on U.S. educational trends and the evaluation of social programs aimed at low skilled workers. In 2006, he published a paper co-authored with Professor James Heckman evaluating the economic benefits of the GED certification program in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Lawrence Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute and director of its education research program. He is the principal author of EPI’s flagship publication, The State of Working America, which provides a comprehensive overview of the U.S. labor market and living standards. He is a principal author of How Does Teacher Pay Compare? Methodological Challenges and Answers and The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement, and a co-editor of The Class Size Debate.

Joydeep Roy joined the Economic Policy Institute after receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University. His areas of research include the economics of education, education policy, and related fields in public and labor economics, including socioeconomic segregation.