The Bush administration sought to bolster its signature education law Tuesday, announcing new rules designed to address the nation's dropout problem and ensure close attention is paid to the achievement of minority students.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced that among the proposed changes being made to the No Child Left Behind act is a new requirement that by the 2012-13 school year, all states would have to calculate their graduation rates in a uniform way.
States currently use a variety of methods to determine their graduation rates, many of which are based on unreliable information about school dropouts, leading to overestimates.
States will be told to count graduates, in most cases, as students who leave on time and with a regular degree. Research indicates students who take extra time or get alternatives to diplomas, such as a GED, generally don't do as well in college or in the work force.
While states will no longer be able to use their own methods for calculating graduation rates, they still will be able to set their own goals for getting more students to graduate. Critics say that may allow some states to continue setting weak improvement goals.
In Kansas, graduation rates could appear lower under the switch because, for example, the formula the state uses to calculate them sometimes includes GED graduates, Education Commissioner Alexa Posny said.
"I don't think it will be anything dramatic," Posny said.
Posny said the biggest advantage of the policy change is that it puts states on a level playing field.
"We'll finally have a rate that allows comparability across all the states, which will be great," she said.
The Bush administration's proposed regulations would require schools to be judged not only on how the overall student body does but also on the percentage of minority students who graduate, which Kansas already calculates.
Nationally, an estimated 70 percent of students graduate on time with a regular diploma. For Hispanic and black students, the proportion drops to about 50 percent.
Nationally, critics of the 6-year-old education law have complained that judging schools on test scores but not, to the same degree, on graduation rates has created an incentive for schools to push weak students out or into nondiploma tracks.
No Child Left Behind has a goal to have all kids doing math and reading at their proper grade level by 2013-2014. Spellings has been taking steps in recent months to make administrative changes to the law after efforts to rewrite the bill in Congress stalled.