Rethinking How We Measure Student Progress to High School Graduation

Students graduating

By Miya Warner, Lauren Cassidy, and Kyra Caspary
May 15, 2023

Finishing more years of high school, and especially earning a diploma, is associated with a decreased risk of premature death, increased prospects for employment, and a higher lifelong earning potential.1 Traditional accountability metrics, however, are not useful or valid measures of how successfully schools support students who take nonconventional paths through high school.

Students have diverse reasons for taking nonconventional paths. Some are immigrant students who started their formal education in another country. Some have familial and employment obligations that interfere with their ability to fully engage in school. Many have confronted systemic inequities earlier in their educational careers.

Traditional metrics such as the 4-year cohort graduation rate assume that students progress steadily through high school, starting in 9th grade and graduating 4 years later after 12th grade.2 In comprehensive high schools, traditional metrics obscure the progress of those students with nonconventional paths, who end up off track to graduate in 4 years. The metrics can even disincentivize educators from focusing on these students. In alternative high schools, which tend to serve large percentages of students with nonconventional paths, these metrics do not function at all.

New Metrics

As part of our study of the Engage New England initiative, SRI researchers collaborated with leaders from five alternative high schools to develop new measures of progress toward graduation and graduation rates, tailored to the unique paths of their students (Table 1). We designed these metrics to give alternative high school leaders insight into how much progress students are making in their schools without penalizing the schools for what had happened in students’ academic careers before they enrolled.

Although we had the needs of alternative high schools in mind when we designed these metrics, they are equally useful for traditional high schools, which also typically serve some students who are off track to graduate in 4 years.

Table 1. New Metrics for Student Progress Toward Graduation

Progress IconProgress to Graduation
Annual Credit Accumulation
Metrics Sample
  • Average 1-year credit accumulation
  • Percentage of students earning at least 1 year’s worth of credit
  • Percentage of students earning more than 1 year’s worth of credits
  • Includes students enrolled as of October 1 who have at least 1 year’s worth of credits remaining
  • Excludes students who drop out or transfer mid-year
Graduation iconGraduation Rates
One-year graduation rate
Metrics Sample
  • One-year graduation rate with a high school diploma
  • All students who begin the school year as “seniors,” defined by number of credits
  • Does not include students who transfer in or out mid-year
  • Includes students who drop out
Single-year entry cohort graduation rate (and extended engagement rate)
Metrics Sample
  • Three-year cohort graduation rate

    Supplementary metric: Three-year cohort extended engagement rate

  • All students who first enroll in a given school year (at any point during the year) are included in the rates 3 years later
  • Does not include students who transfer to another school
  • Includes students who drop out

Progress to Graduation

The new metrics assess students against an annual benchmark of expected credits earned rather than the traditional cumulative credit benchmark. The annual benchmark provides a measure for how well a student’s current school is supporting their progress to graduation, regardless of what year the student enrolls and how many credits they have upon entry. Because students’ progress to graduation is not necessarily linear, we supplement the percentage of students earning at least 1 year of credits with the average 1-year credit accumulation. Also, because schools may try to support students to accelerate their progress by earning more than a year’s worth of credit, we include the percentage of students earning more than 1 year’s worth of credits.

Graduation Rate

Youth who are currently off track to graduate vary greatly in their age and number of credits earned. This diversity creates challenges for developing a single graduation rate metric that will perform equally well across all segments of the population.

SRI researchers and Engage New England school leaders adopted two graduation rates to use in tandem. The first is a 1-year graduation rate that tracks the percentage of students who start the year as seniors and who earn a diploma by the end of that same year. The second is a revised cohort graduation rate, in which all students who first enroll in a given school year—at any point during the year and at any stage in their high school careers—are included in the graduation rate 3 years later. The school leaders felt that graduating within 3 years is a realistic goal for the majority of students they enroll.

Schools can also get credit for continuing to engage students who have not earned a diploma yet through a cohort extended engagement rate. This supplementary rate avoids penalizing schools for serving students who are far from graduation when they first enroll.

These new metrics for tracking students’ progress to graduation provide school leaders with fair and genuine measures of how well they are supporting their students with nonconventional paths through high school. More information about the development process, rationale, and calculation of these metrics can be found in Equitably Measuring Student Progress to High School Graduation: Insights from the Engage New England Initiative.

1Levin, H. M., Belfield, C., Muennig, P. A., & Rouse, C. (2007). The costs and benefits of an excellent education for all of America’s children. Columbia University, Teachers College.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019, October 21). Median weekly earnings $606 for high school dropouts, $1,559 for advanced degree holders. The Economics Daily.
2 The standard 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, which the federal government requires states to report, is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate within 4 years with a high school diploma by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for that graduating class. The adjusted cohort begins with all students who entered 9th grade for the first time 4 years earlier and then adds any students who subsequently transferred into the cohort and subtracts any students who transferred out, emigrated, or died during the years covered by the rate.

Topics: Access and equity High school redesign Research and evaluation Students off track to graduate