Finally, a federal regulation establishes a national uniform graduation rate that will ensure consistency in the way states calculate those figures.

It has been long overdue.

Because of the difficulty in tracking graduation rates, making effective comparisons between the states has been almost impossible. Left to their own devices, states have developed their own ways of calculating the rates.

Texas' questionable methods of calculating the number of high school dropouts have routinely come under fire. In recent years, the Texas Education Agency has reported graduation rates of 84 percent, while the Education Research Center and Education Week came up with a 66.8-percent rate.

Texas is not the only state whose numbers have raised eyebrows. Several states report graduation rates 10 to 20 percentage points higher than those found by independent researchers.

A couple of years ago, Texas started to phase in the standards developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, and that should prove helpful in the state's efforts to comply with the new federal mandate.

The new graduation calculation rules are part of Education Secretary Margaret Spelling's extension of the No Child Left Behind rules to the high school grades announced late last month.

By 2011, states must begin using a uniform formula to determine the percentage of ninth-graders who earn a diploma within four years.

If states are going to be accountable for their graduation rates and be forced to improve those rates for minority students as well as those with disabilities, they all need to work off the same page.

According to the Education Trust, one of every four high school freshmen fails to graduate. One of its recent studies suggests this may be the first generation that fares worse than their parents when it comes to education and completing high school.

It is estimated that one half of minority students do not get out of high school on time.

Not everyone is cut out for college, and there are many successful individuals who have prospered without a college degree, but the odds remain stacked against the high school dropout.

In today's world, a high school dropout earns about $17,300, compared to $52,700 for someone with a bachelor's degree.

In Texas, it is estimated that one class of dropouts costs taxpayers $377 million a year in terms of medical services, prison costs and lost revenue from fees and taxes.

Establishing an accurate accounting of the number of high school dropouts will not solve the problem, but it is crucial information needed to develop solutions to the crisis.

URL: http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/

—San Antonio Express-News