completion rates to diploma recipients provides some degree of consistency across states and districts with different policies, programs, and data-recording procedures. It also helps maintain stability over time; that is, more comprehensive completion rates might increase over time simply because of an expansion in the availability of alternative forms of completion.5 For purposes of accountability, counting only diploma recipients prevents perverse incentives for schools to push students out of regular programs into alternative or GED programs.

Constraining completion indicators to diploma recipients also has some shortcomings. Diploma requirements are not equivalent across states and districts, and they may change over time, making them not equivalent across different cohorts of students, even within the same school district.6 In addition, when used for accountability, rates that include only graduates provide no incentive to districts to offer recovery programs for students not likely to obtain a regular diploma. Diploma-based rates also cannot be calculated for schools that offer alternative credentials, and thus, their effectiveness cannot be compared with schools that offer regular diplomas.

Timing of Completion

It may seem desirable to include all completers in the rate, regardless of how long it took them to complete their education. If the rates are being used as a tool to encourage good practices, it makes sense to allow a long time for completion so that schools do not have an incentive to give up on students who do not complete high school in four years. Time limitations for completion are problematic for students with disabilities: those whose Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) specify that they remain in school beyond age 18 or who are ungraded and whose time in high school is not clearly defined. Time limitations may exclude summer graduates or students who take just one extra term to complete school. Practically, each extra year that is incorporated into the statistic means an additional year’s wait before the completion rate can be reported. Whether the statistics are used for accountability, program evaluation, or assessment of the current state of educational attainment—it is generally critical to get timely information.

equivalency recipients, and other). The variability in defining completers is notable across states (Mishel and Roy, 2006).


For example, based on the Common Core of Data, Warren (2005) noted a rise in regular diplomas in California from 1996 to 1997, but much less of a rise in the total number of high school completers—a fact he attributed to changes in how diplomas were classified.


In recent years, many states have raised their graduation requirements or have developed plans to raise them. Currently, the standards for graduation vary widely across states. There are also different types of diplomas in some states, and some states allow parental waivers from the default curriculum (Achieve, Inc., 2008).

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