Publisher's note: The article below, by Dr. Terry Stoops, who is Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation, appeared in John Hood's daily column in his publication, the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is inextricably linked to the John Locke Foundation.
RALEIGH The U.S. Department of Education released on Monday state-by-state graduation rates
for the 2010-11 school year. North Carolina's rate of 78 percent was tied for 26th-highest in the nation.
This ranking is unique. For the first time, states used the same method to calculate graduation rates -- the four-year cohort rate. The cohort rate represents the percentage of students who begin ninth grade and graduate four years later, adjusted for enrollment changes. To its credit, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has been using this method since 2006. A number of other states made the switch only a year or two before the deadline.
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 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 (88 percent) spent nearly $8,000 less per student than second-place Vermont (87 percent) and over $2,300 less than fellow runner-up Wisconsin (also 87 percent). 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.
The second lesson from the new data: Midwestern states, as a group, outperformed the rest of the nation. Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Illinois all reached the top 10, boasting graduation rates between 84 percent 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.
A third lesson is that 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.
While researchers can offer credible theories about the factors contributing to changing graduation rates
, they acknowledge that empirical studies of dropout and graduation rates are costly, time-consuming, methodologically challenging, and therefore rare. Christopher Swanson, 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.