IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

By Joel McFarland

NCES and the Department of Education have released national and state-level Average Cohort Graduation Rates for the 2015-16 school year. You can see the data on the NCES website (as well as data from 2010-11 through 2015-16).

In recent years, NCES has released two widely-used annual measures of high school completion: the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) and the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR). Both measure the percent of public school students who attain a regular high school diploma within 4 years of starting 9th grade. However, they also differ in important ways. This post provides an overview of how each measure is calculated and why they may result in different rates.

The ACGR was first collected for 2010-11 and is a newer graduation rate measure. To calculate the ACGR, states identify the “cohort” of first-time 9th graders in a particular school year, and adjust this number by adding any students who transfer into the cohort after 9th grade and subtracting any students who transfer out, emigrate to another country, or pass away. The ACGR is the percentage of the students in this cohort who graduate within four years. States calculate the ACGR for individual schools and districts and for the state as a whole using detailed data that track each student over time. In many states, these student-level records have become available at a state level only in recent years. As an example, the ACGR formula for 2012-13 was calculated like this:

What is the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)?

The AFGR uses aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class, which is compared to the number of high school diplomas awarded 4 years later. The incoming freshman class size is estimated by summing 8th grade enrollment in year one, 9th grade enrollment for the next year, and 10th grade enrollment for the year after, and then dividing by three. The averaging of the enrollment counts helps to smooth out the enrollment bump typically seen in 9th grade. The AFGR estimate is less accurate than the ACGR, but it can be estimated as far back as the 1960s since it requires only aggregate annual counts of enrollment and graduate data. As an example, the AFGR formula for 2012-13 was:

Why do they produce different rates?

There are several reasons the AFGR and ACGR do not match exactly.

• The AFGR’s estimate of the incoming freshman class is fixed, and is not adjusted to account for students entering or exiting the cohort during high school. As a result it is very sensitive to migration trends. If there is net out-migration after the initial cohort size is estimated, the AFGR will understate the graduation rate relative to the ACGR. If there is net in-migration, the AFGR will overstate the graduation rate;
• The diploma count used in the AFGR includes any students who graduate with a regular high school diploma in a given school year, which may include students who took more or less than four years to graduate. The ACGR includes only those students who graduate within four years of starting ninth grade. This can cause the AFGR to be inflated relative to the ACGR; and
• The AFGR’s averaged enrollment base is sensitive to the presence of 8th and 9th grade dropouts. Students who drop out in the 8th grade in one year are not eligible to be first-time freshmen the next year, but are included in the calculation of the AFGR enrollment base. At the same time, 9th grade dropouts should be counted as first-time 9th graders, but are excluded from the 10th grade enrollment counts used in the AFGR enrollment base. Since more students typically drop out in 9th grade than in 8th grade, the overall impact is likely to underestimate the AFGR enrollment base relative to the true ACGR cohort.

At the national level, these factors largely balance out, and the AFGR closely tracks the ACGR. For instance, in 2012-13, there was less than one percentage point difference between the AFGR (81.9%) and the ACGR (81.4%). At the state level, especially for small population subgroups, there is often more variation between the two measures.

On the NCES website you can access the most recently available data for each measure, including 2016-17 adjusted cohort graduation rates and 2012-13 averaged freshman graduation rates. You can find more data on high school graduation and dropout rates in the annual report Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States.

This blog was originally posted on July 15, 2015 and was updated on February 2, 2016, December 4, 2017, and January 24, 2019.

It is clear that civic education is a priority in the United States. All U.S. states require students to take a civics or government course and many provide opportunities for students to perform community service or service learning to practice active citizenship.

However, reports illustrate that many young people are not being adequately prepared as citizens. For example, in the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in Civics only one-quarter of students reached “proficient” in knowledge of key facts on the U.S. Constitution or the functions of government.

Amid calls to strengthen civic education, IES has funded several interventions that are leveraging technological innovation and game design to engage students. These projects are mainly funded through two IES programs—the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program and Education Research Grants in Education Technology.

Among the projects IES has funded:

• ECO (pictured above) is a game-based virtual environment where students collaboratively build a shared civilization and, in the process, apply democratic skills such as making rules and laws, analyzing data, and deliberation (watch video);
• Discussion Maker is a role-playing game where students debate a civic issue, such as freedom of speech. The technology assigns each student a role, facilitates analysis and using evidence to make an argument, and organizes face-to-face debates and deliberation (watch video);
• GlobalED2 is a role-playing game addressing a simulated global crisis (e.g., major oil spill or water scarcity) where students act as representatives of different countries governments. Students analyze the issue from the perspective of their country and negotiate with other countries to create a solution (watch video);
• EcoMUVE is a 3D multi-user virtual pond or forest environment where students apply inquiry-based practices to understand causal patterns in ecological science (watch video); and
• Mission US’s Up from the Dust (pictured right) is a historical fiction adventure style game where students take on the role wheat farmers during the Great Depression in Texas 1929, and in doing so guide decisions by learning about the interaction of agriculture, the environment, and how government policies affect the economy (watch video).

Specific design elements of these games offer new ways to stimulate young people’s civic knowledge, skills, and engagement. For example:

All of these interventions employ game-based learning to motivate and engage students in new ways. For example, ECO is an unscripted “sandbox” where students create unique and personalized worlds, while Up from the Dust follows an adventure-based historical story. GlobalED2 and Discussion Maker employ role-playing and EcoMUVE guides inquiry-based virtual and real-world exploration.

Additionally, these programs all seek to build citizenship skills with cross-disciplinary content. For example, ECO, EcoMUVE, and GlobalED2 focus building citizen-science skills such as inquiry and analysis; Discussion Maker can apply content from almost any course within democratic debate; and Up from the Dust immerses students in a storyline with history, economics, and government concepts.

At the same time, these interventions also promote collaborative civic learning by simulating democratic processes for a whole class of students, both virtually and face-to-face. In ECO, students collaborate to create their own government with which they need to maintain through rules and laws. Discussion Maker and GlobalED2 use analysis, deliberation, and debates for individuals and groups of students. In EcoMUVE, students can conduct inquiry-based learning within the virtual environment. In Up from the Dust students engage in group discussions after gameplay to assess how specific decisions influenced results.

Several of these games also allow for feasible classroom implementation of what would otherwise be complex interventions. For example, some of the interventions provide real-time cues to students as they progress through the game, allowing a teacher to focus on facilitating overall instruction rather than coordinating every step of the game for every student.