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Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2008

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

Defining the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for Public School Students Using the CCD

Data from the CCD state nonfiscal files are used to calculate AFGRs in this report. In the AFGR, graduates include only diploma recipients. Other high school completers, such as those who earn a certificate of attendance, and those awarded high school equivalency credentials such as GEDs, are not considered graduates. The purpose of these exclusions is to make the AFGR as similar as possible conceptually to Adequate Yearly Progress provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 2001 (P.L. 107-110). These provisions require measurement of on-time graduation from public high schools and explicitly exclude GEDs and other types of nonregular diplomas. Another reason for the exclusion of equivalency credentials in the AFGR is that not all states report giving equivalency credentials, so comparable estimates across states would not be possible.

Diploma Recipients. These are individuals who are awarded, in a given year, a high school diploma or a diploma that recognizes some higher level of academic achievement. They can be thought of as students who meet or exceed the coursework and performance standards for high school completion established by the state or other relevant authorities. State and local policies and data collection administration can have profound effects on the numbers of diploma recipients reported by a state. There are differences in what a high school diploma represents in different states. Some states award regular diplomas to all students who meet completion requirements, regardless of the extent to which these requirements address state or district academic standards. Other states award some form of alternative credential to students who meet some, but not all, requirements.

Exclusion of Other High School Completers. Other high school completers were excluded from the calculation of the AFGR. These individuals receive a certificate of attendance or some other credential in lieu of a diploma. One example of such a credential is a certificate of attendance for special education students who do not follow a regular academic curriculum. Students awarded this credential typically meet requirements that differ from those for a high school diploma. Some states do not issue an “other high school completion” type of certificate, but award all students who complete school a diploma regardless of what academic requirements the students have met.

Exclusion of High School Equivalency Recipients. High school equivalency recipients are awarded a credential certifying that they have met state or district requirements for high school completion by passing an examination or completing some other performance requirement. High school equivalency credentials, such as those earned by passing the GED test, are generally considered valid completion credentials, but recipients of such credentials are excluded from the AFGR because the ESEA calls for only regular diploma recipients to be counted (table A-1). Incorporation of equivalency credentials into high school outcome measures would be further complicated by variation in how different states treat GED programs and recipients. Some states incorporate GED programs into their high school education systems and continue to follow the progress of individuals in these programs as part of their overall high school student population. These states count at least some GED recipients as equivalency credential holders in their high school data systems. Some states incorporate GED programs into adult social service programs or other programs outside of secondary education and do not track GED program participants or GED recipients as part of their high school student population.

Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate. The AFGR provides an estimate of the percentage of high school students who graduate on time. The rate uses aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class and aggregate counts of the number of regular diplomas awarded 4 years later. The incoming freshman class size is estimated by summing the enrollment in 8th grade for one year, 9th grade for the next year, and 10th grade for the year after and then dividing by 3. The averaging is intended to account for higher grade retentions in the 9th grade in order to estimate how many of them were first-time 9th-graders. Although not as accurate as an on-time graduation rate computed from a cohort of students using student record data, this estimate of an on-time graduation rate can be computed with currently available data. The AFGR was selected from a number of alternative estimates that can be calculated using cross-sectional data based on a technical review and analysis of a set of alternative estimates (Seastrom et al. 2006a, 2006b). The rate for the class of 2007–08 was calculated in the following manner:

High School Diplomas Awarded at End of 2005–06 School Year

Enrollment in (Grade 8 in fall 2001 + Grade 9 in fall 2002 + Grade 10 in fall 2003)/3

Although enrollments are reported by grade, some states report ungraded students3 in addition to graded students. To adjust for this, an allocation procedure used in the CCD “Local Education Agency Universe Survey Dropout and Completion Data File” was applied. Through this process, the data for ungraded enrollment counts were redistributed across grades in proportion to the graded enrollment of the state, and the resulting estimates for grades 8, 9, and 10 were added to the reported enrollment counts for those grades. The AFGR for public school students in the United States for 2007–08 is based on data from 4 years. The numerator is the 2,965,286 diploma recipients reported for school year 2007–08. The denominator is the average of the estimated 3,788,070 students in 8th grade in October 2003, the estimated 4,247,085 students in 9th grade in October 2004, and the estimated 3,841,810 students in 10th grade in October 2005. The 2,965,286 public school diploma recipients divided by the 3,958,987 averaged number of public school freshmen, multiplied by 100, results in a 2007–08 public school graduation rate for the United States of 74.9 percent. The same formula is applied to compute the 2001–02, 2002–03, 2003–04, 2004–05, 2005–06, and 2006–07 AFGRs for public school students in the country and in each state.

Note that the AFGR is not the same as a true cohort graduation rate that shows the percentage of actual first-time 9th-grade students who graduated within 4 years of starting 9th grade. A true cohort rate requires data that track a given set of students over time. The CCD data used for the AFGR are collected using repeating cross-sectional surveys. Individual students are not followed from year to year. Although the AFGR was selected as the best of the available alternatives, there are several factors that make it fall short of a true on-time graduation rate. First, the averaged freshman class is, at best, an approximation of the actual number of first-time freshmen. To the extent that the averaging differs from actual net transfers into and out of a class, and to the extent that it does not accurately capture grade retention and dropout rates across all 4 years of a given freshman class’s expected high school stay, the estimate will be less accurate. Second, by including all graduates in a specific year, the graduates may include students who repeated a grade in high school or completed high school early and, thus, are not on-time graduates in that year.

Taking these factors one at a time, it is possible that more high school students will move out of a given jurisdiction than move into it during the 4 years between the beginning of 9th grade and the expected graduation date. The averaged freshman count would overestimate the size of the actual cohort and thus underestimate the graduation rate. On the other hand, if more high school students moved into a jurisdiction than moved out during this 4-year period, the averaged freshman count would underestimate the size of the cohort and thus overestimate the graduation rate. Similarly, the use of 8th-, 9th-, and 10th-grade enrollment counts to estimate a first-time freshman class may not work as intended in many situations. Using 8th- and 9th-grade enrollment counts can be inaccurate to the extent that they do not adequately account for grade retention at 9th grade. Retention rates at 9th grade tend to be relatively large. While adding 8th- grade enrollments to the average may help diminish this problem, it is likely that in many cases it will not wholly adjust for actual 9th-grade retention rates, thus overestimating the first-time freshman count and underestimating the graduation rate. Using 9th- and 10th-grade enrollment numbers can be inaccurate to the extent that the 10th-grade counts exclude 9th-graders who dropped out from the previous year (effectively underestimating the cohort) or include students retained in 10th grade (effectively overestimating the cohort).

The inclusion of graduates who spent more or less than 4 years in high school increases the number of graduates in the numerator and yields a higher estimated rate than would be the case if only on-time graduates were included in the numerator. On the other hand, not recording early graduates with their actual cohort decreases the graduation rate for their original 9th-grade classes.

Data Considerations for the CCD

As a universe data collection, the CCD does not have sampling errors (the difference between an estimate based on a sample and the estimate based on an entire population). However, there are potential sources for nonsampling errors in universe data collections, including inability to get information about all cases (i.e., nonresponse), definitional difficulties, respondent inability to provide correct information, and errors made in recording, coding, and processing data. For more information about the CCD, go to


3 Ungraded students are those who are assigned to a class or program that does not have standard grade designations.