Some states are using creative math to calculate their high school graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, leading to misleading and "laughable" data, researchers said Thursday.
North Carolina, for instance, estimates that 97% of its high school students graduate in four years -- the highest rate in the nation, but one reached by excluding dropouts from the calculations, according to a report for 2002-2003 issued by the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group for disadvantaged students.
The calculations used by North Carolina and other states "defy logic and common sense," the report said, warning that efforts to improve school performance were being undermined by a lack of honest information.
"Frankly ... every year we report these literally preposterous numbers erodes just a little more public confidence in our educational system," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust.
The report echoes the findings of other researchers, including a team from Harvard, UCLA and other institutions that recently criticized California for using "misleading and inaccurate" methods to calculate its graduation rate, which was pegged at 87% in 2002-2003.
That would mean that about nine out of 10 incoming ninth-graders could be expected to pick up a diploma four years later. The Harvard team researchers argued that the figure was closer to seven out of 10 -- and among African American and Latino students, and in large urban districts such as Los Angeles Unified, the rate was much lower.
Some educators in California and elsewhere have complained that such studies fail to account for students who take longer than four years to complete their studies, or do so in nontraditional settings such as vocational schools or independent study.
"They don't count as graduates, even though they've graduated, and that's discouraging," Terry Bergeson, Washington state's superintendent of public instruction, complained in a telephone news conference arranged by the Education Trust.
The report did not single out California, but noted that the state's reported rate was at odds with an estimate of 69% calculated by the Urban Institute, whose Cumulative Promotion Index is recognized by some reformers as a more accurate gauge. The Urban Institute estimates the number of graduates based on its calculations of students promoted each year, beginning in ninth grade.
The Education Trust report included California in a list of 34 states that had set goals for graduation rates that were lower than the one reported by the state.
Education Trust policy analyst Daria Hall, author of the report, said the goals were "so low as to be laughable."
State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said California had taken steps to maintain a more accurate count of high school graduates. In the meantime, he said, the state has been using "the methodology the federal government asked us to use."
Beginning this fall, California will track all students by assigning them a statewide identification number. However, it will be four years before the new system will begin to show how many incoming freshmen graduate.
Without such a system, O'Connell said, "nobody knows the exact dropout rate."
Under No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature act to revamp schools, states must set goals for the percentage of students who will graduate from high school. However, the law gives states substantial leeway, not only in setting goals, but in determining how the rate will be calculated.
As a result, the Education Trust said, it is impossible to compare states or form any coherent national picture of how many students are finishing high school.
New Mexico, for instance, bases its graduation rate on the number of incoming seniors, not freshmen, who finish high school, the Education Trust said. Since most students who drop out of school do so before the 12th grade, that ensures that New Mexico can boast a relatively high graduation rate -- 89% in 2002-2003.
Like California, New Mexico and North Carolina are in the process of changing the way they calculate their rates, the Education Trust acknowledged.
Vanessa Jeter, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the system criticized in the report was "almost a placeholder" used to satisfy No Child Left Behind while the state began a system of tracking students all through high school.
"We knew we wanted another kind of measure," Jeter said, "but we could not produce it until we had four years of data under our belts."
The new data will be available beginning next year, she said.
The Education Trust criticized the U.S. Department of Education, which administers No Child Left Behind, for closing its eyes to the lack of reliable information.
Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey issued a statement Thursday essentially agreeing with the Education Trust that "the graduation data doesn't accurately reflect what's truly happening in the states."
She added that it was "absolutely vital" for states to correct their reporting systems, and that the department intended to offer help.