Indicator B3. Who is expected to complete upper secondary education?

Completion rates are calculated using two different methods, depending on data availability. The first method, true cohort, follows individual students from entry into an upper secondary programme until a specified number of years later. Completion is then calculated as the share of entrants who have graduated in that time frame. The second method, cross cohort, is used when data on individuals are not available. It calculates completion by dividing the number of graduates in a year by the number of new entrants to that programme a certain number of years before, where the number of years corresponds to the theoretical duration of the programme.

Because of the difference in methodologies, caution must be exercised when comparing true cohort and cross cohort completion rates. On the one hand, countries with true cohort data are able to report exactly how many students from a given entry cohort have graduated within a specific time frame. That means that the true cohort completion rate includes students who graduated before or exactly at the end of the time frame (even if they graduated from a different upper secondary programme than the one they began) and excludes students who took longer than the time frame to graduate.

On the other hand, the number of graduates used in the cross cohort calculation corresponds to the total number of graduates of an upper secondary programme in a given calendar year. Thus, it includes every student who graduated that year, regardless of the time they took to successfully complete the programme. As an example, consider a programme with a theoretical duration of three years. Completion rates will then be calculated using the graduation cohort in 2018 and an entry cohort two academic years earlier, in 2015/16. For countries with cross cohort data, the graduation cohort in 2018 will include students who entered in 2015/16 and graduated on time (within three years) as well as all others who entered before 2015/16 and graduated in 2018. As a result, in countries where a significant share of students take longer to graduate, the cross cohort method will overestimate completion rates compared to the true cohort method, for which the time frame is limited.

The theoretical duration of upper secondary programmes may vary across countries. Therefore, despite having the same reference year for graduates (2018 unless specified otherwise), the year used for the entry cohort differs across countries. Please see Annex 3 (https://doi.org/10.1787/69096873-en) for more information on each country’s theoretical duration of upper secondary programmes.

On average across countries and economies with true cohort data, 72% of students who enter upper secondary education graduate from any programme within the theoretical duration of the programme. Two years after the end of the theoretical duration, the average completion rate increases to 81%. The completion rate increases between the theoretical duration and two years on, but for some countries and economies the increase is substantial. Notably, the completion rate at this level increases by at least 15 percentage points in Austria, the Flemish Community of Belgium, France, Norway, Portugal and Switzerland (Table B3.1).

A significant difference in completion rates between the shorter and longer time frames is not necessarily a negative outcome. It could reflect a more flexible upper secondary system, where it is common for students to transfer between different programmes or programme orientations, thus delaying their graduation. In the Flemish Community of Belgium, for example, 19% of students who enter a general upper secondary programme graduate instead from a vocational programme within the theoretical duration of their original programme plus two years. In Iceland and Norway, the opposite pathway is more common: more than 20% of students who enter a vocational programme transfer and graduate instead from a general programme (Table B3.2).

More generally, in countries that provide broad access to upper secondary education, flexibility may be important to give students more time to meet the standards set by their educational institution. In countries where upper secondary education is restricted either by admissions criteria or because students from disadvantaged backgrounds have less access to this level, completion rates may be higher because of the selection bias.

Nevertheless, students who graduate after excessive delays, or who leave the system without graduating are indeed a source of concern. Analysing how many of the students who are still in education by the theoretical duration leave the education system within the following two years may shed light on whether these students are delayed because of system characteristics or because they are falling behind and at risk of dropping out.

On average across countries and economies with available data, 51% of students who entered an upper secondary programme have graduated from a general programme and 24% from a vocational programme by the end of its theoretical duration. About 16% were still in education (even if at a different level) and 12% were no longer enrolled and had not graduated from any upper secondary programme. The picture evolves quite considerably two years after the end of the theoretical duration of the programme, as many of those who were still in education either graduate or leave the system. At this point, on average, 55% of students have graduated from a general programme and 28% from a vocational programme. Some 3% are still in education and 16% are no longer enrolled and have not graduated (Figure B3.1).

Cross cohort completion rates take into account all graduates in a given academic year, regardless of the time it took them to complete the programme. As a result, cross cohort completion rates tend to be considerably higher than true cohort completion rates. Although they cannot be used to assess whether students are graduating with excessive delays, cross cohort completion provides valuable information on the share of students who are not graduating at all.

On average across the eight countries that submitted cross cohort data, 83% of students who enter an upper secondary programme complete it. There is, however, a wide variation among countries, ranging from 65% in Costa Rica to 96% in Korea (Table B3.1).

The completion rate pattern by programme orientation shows that in most countries with available data, cross cohort completion is higher in general programmes than in vocational programmes, except in the Slovak Republic (Figure B3.2). On average, the cross cohort completion rate is 10 percentage points higher for general programmes, ranging from 2 percentage points in Japan to 22 percentage points in Spain (Table B3.1).

The flexibility to transfer between upper secondary programmes is important to ensure that students do not get locked into a programme that does not reflect their interest or ability. However, in most countries with true cohort data, students tend to graduate from the programme they entered: 73% of entrants to upper secondary general programme graduate from the same programme and 4% graduate from a vocational programme within the theoretical duration. Similarly, 58% of entrants to upper secondary vocational programmes graduate from the same programme and only 4% have gained a general qualification within the theoretical duration.

In all countries with true cohort data, except Israel and Switzerland, the completion rate within the theoretical duration for students who enter a general upper secondary programme is higher than for students who enter a vocational one. On average across countries with true cohort data, the completion rate for general programmes within the theoretical duration is 76%, compared to 62% for vocational programmes. In Estonia and Norway, the completion rate for general programmes is at least 30 percentage points higher than that for vocational programmes. The completion rates of vocational programmes within the theoretical duration range from 41% in Iceland to 94% in Israel. For countries with cross cohort data, the figures range from 53% in Costa Rica to 93% in Japan and Korea (Table B3.1).

In most countries, the difference in completion rates between the two orientations does not change significantly after two years following the end of the theoretical duration. One notable exception is Norway, where the gap reduces by 12 percentage points between the shorter and longer time frames. In contrast, the gap actually increases by 10 percentage points in France and by 17 percentage points in Portugal as the completion rate for general programmes increases considerably more than that of vocational programmes during the two years after the end of the theoretical duration (Table B3.1).

For the first time, the ad-hoc survey on upper secondary completion rates disaggregates vocational programmes into those which give access to tertiary education and without access to tertiary education (but may give direct access to post-secondary non-tertiary education). This further disaggregation is meant to shed light on the different pathways through upper secondary education but also on the differences in completion rates between these vocational programmes.

The entry into general upper secondary programmes may be subject to stricter admission criteria than into vocational ones (Box B3.1).In all countries and economies with available data, the completion rate of students who entered a general programme is higher than that of students who entered either type of vocational programme (with or without access to tertiary education). However, many countries have substantial differences in completion rates between vocational programmes. In the Flemish Community (Belgium), France, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland, students who entered a vocational programme without access to tertiary education are considerably less likely to complete upper secondary education than those who entered one with access to tertiary education. In contrast, the difference in completion rates between vocational programmes is low in Austria (Figure B3.3).

Among countries with cross cohort data, completion is also higher for general programmes than for vocational programmes. The average completion rate for general programmes is 87%, compared to 77% for vocational ones. The largest difference is found in Spain, where the completion rate for general programmes is 22 percentage points higher than for vocational programmes. One exception is the Slovak Republic, where completion is higher in vocational programmes than in general ones (Table B3.1).

As many countries aim to develop their upper secondary vocational programmes in the hope of better preparing students for the labour market, the comparatively lower completion rate for these programmes is concerning. It highlights the challenge faced by educators and policy makers alike of not only attracting students to vocational tracks, but also of supporting them through successful completion. Some countries have been successful in considerably increasing completion rates in vocational programmes and diminishing the gap between vocational and general programmes, however (Box B3.2). It is important to note, however, that there is a wide variation in size, duration and even completion rates of vocational programmes across countries.

In every country with available data (both true and cross cohort), women are more likely than men to complete upper secondary education, both within the theoretical duration and two years after (Table B3.1). On average across countries and economies with true cohort data, 76% of women graduated from upper secondary education within the theoretical duration of the programme, compared to only 68% of men. The difference in completion rates between women and men by the theoretical duration is at least 11 percentage points in the Flemish Community of Belgium, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal. The gender gap narrows two years after the theoretical duration of the programme, when the completion rate among women increases to 84% and among men to 78% (Table B3.1).

In all countries and economies except Finland and Sweden, the gap in completion rate between men and women narrows or remains the same within the two years after the end of the theoretical duration of programmes, meaning relatively more men tend to delay graduation. Many factors may contribute to this delay, one of which is the higher incidence of grade repetition among men, who are more likely than women to repeat a grade even after accounting for students’ academic performance and self-reported behaviour and attitudes (OECD, 2016[3])

The difference between upper secondary completion rates for women and men tends to be smaller among countries with cross cohort data. On average, the completion rate for women is 4 percentage points higher than for men, and the difference reaches 8 percentage points in Slovenia and Spain.

The gender gap also varies considerably depending on the programme orientation at entrance. In all countries with true cohort data, the completion rate of women is higher than that of men, whatever their programme orientation (Figure B3.4), except in Lithuania for students who entered a vocational programme. While the gender gap in favour of women tends to be similar for students entering a general or vocational programme (7 percentage points) within the theoretical duration plus two years, the completion rate of men in vocational programmes is equal or significantly higher than that of women in some countries (Table B3.1).

The true cohort method requires following an entry cohort through a specific time frame, which in the case of this survey corresponds to the theoretical duration N and the theoretical duration plus two years (N+2). Only countries with longitudinal surveys or registers are able to provide such information. Panel data can be available in the form of an individual student registry (a system including unique personal ID numbers for students) or a cohort of students used for conducting a longitudinal survey.

The cross cohort method only requires the number of new entrants to a given ISCED level and the number of graduates N years later, where N corresponds to the theoretical duration of the programme. Under the assumption of constant student flows (constant increase or decrease in the number of students entering a given ISCED level throughout the years), the cross cohort completion is closer to a total completion rate (i.e. the completion rate of all students, regardless of the time it took them to graduate). As such, in countries where a large share of students do not graduate “on time” given the theoretical duration of the programme, the cross cohort completion may be more comparable to longer time frames of the true cohort completion.

The theoretical duration of studies is the regulatory or common-practice time it takes a full-time student to complete a level of education. True cohort completion is measured within two time frames: by the end of the theoretical duration and by the end of the theoretical duration plus two years. The theoretical duration always refers to the programme in which the student originally entered upper secondary education. This means that even if a student transfers to a different programme with a different duration they will still be registered according to the programme in which they originally entered the level. Please see Annex 3 (https://doi.org/10.1787/69096873-en) for information on each country’s theoretical duration for general and vocational upper secondary programmes.

The programme orientation can refer either to the programme in which the student originally entered upper secondary education or to the programme from which the student graduated. Both types of analysis are included in the indicator. The titles, subtitles or axis titles of the figures (and tables) will clarify which programme is being disaggregated by programme orientation. Only programmes sufficient for level completion are included. Four programme orientations are considered in the analysis:

  • general programmes (ISCED-P 343 and 344)

  • vocational programmes without access to tertiary education (ISCED-P 353)

  • vocational programmes with access to tertiary education (ISCED-P 354)

  • combined vocational programmes (ISCED-P 353 and 354).

The reference year for the survey is 2018 and refers to the academic year 2017/18 in countries where the academic year runs from Sept-June. For countries submitting true cohort data, the reference year should be two years after the end of the theoretical duration of the programme. For example, if a programme has a duration of two years, the cohort reported must have entered upper secondary education in the academic year 2014/15. Their status is then recorded by the end of the theoretical duration of the programme (academic year 2015/16) and two years later (academic year 2017/18). For countries submitting cross cohort data, the year of reference corresponds to the reference year for the graduate data. Reference years that differ from 2018 will be clearly indicated throughout the indicator (even if not noted below the charts in this paper).

Data on completion rates refer to the academic year 2017/18 and were collected through a special survey undertaken in 2019. Countries could submit data either using either the true cohort or cross cohort methodology.

The completion rate for both methods is calculated as the number of graduates divided by the number of entrants N or N+2 years before (where N is the theoretical duration of the programme).

For countries that submit true cohort data it is also possible to calculate the share of students still in education and the share of students who have neither graduated nor are still enrolled – all of which is calculated within the timeframes of N and N+2. Both shares are calculated by dividing the number of students in the given situation by the number of new entrants N or N+2 years before.

References

[2] Anderman, E. (2002), “School effects on psychological outcomes during adolescence”, Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 94/4, pp. 795-809, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.94.4.795.

[4] CEDEFOP (2011), The Benefits of Vocational Education and Training, Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[3] OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2016-en.

[1] OECD (2011), Reviews of National Policies for Education, Improving Lower Secondary Schools in Norway, Reviews of National Policies for Education, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264114579-en.

Table B3.1 Completion rate of upper secondary education, by programme orientation at entrance and gender (2018)

Table B3.2 Distribution of entrants to upper secondary education by programme orientation and outcomes after the theoretical duration and after the theoretical duration plus two years (2018)

StatLink: https://doi.org/10.1787/888934163496

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