High school graduation rates have been the source of a lot of news coverage—and conflicting emotions—in the past few months.
President Obama and 19 governors hailed increasing graduation rates in their annual addresses. At the same time, leading journalists and policy wonks have raised questions about those very gains and about the value of a high school diploma.
How to make sense of this optimism and skepticism? Let’s take it one step at a time.
First, there is no denying the progress in graduation rates. Just 10 years ago, the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate was hovering just over 70 percent, where it had been stuck for decades. Today the graduation rate is 82.3 percent, the highest in history. And, significantly, we’ve seen the greatest increases among students of color and students from low-income families.
As a result, over the past 12 years there have been 2 million additional on-time high school graduates. That’s great news for those young people, their families and their communities.
It is also a significant success story for the nation. At a time when it’s common to lament that we can’t get along and can’t get anything done, the increase in high school graduation tells a different story. This is a bipartisan success story that spans the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and owes a great deal to their Secretaries of Education Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan.
Spellings and Duncan shared a passion, drive and determination to improve graduation rates. Both called the nation to better outcomes for all students, created accountability systems, and devoted energy and resources to producing the conditions that would help more young people succeed in school.
This is also a success story written at kitchen tables, in schools and in communities where students, families, educators, and leaders of nonprofits, churches and businesses did the hard work to produce better results.
There is no magic to this work. The progress that has been made is a testament to the fact that so many people subscribed to a big goal, changed their expectations and behaviors, and stuck with it over time. Those who are skeptical should be careful not to disparage the efforts of people who are taking this challenge seriously and who worked hard to make progress.
Trouble Spots Remain
Still, this is hardly a high-five moment. Each year, nearly 500,000 young people leave high school without graduating. And we still see sobering graduation gaps for key student groups.
Nationally 74.6 percent of low-income students graduated on time in 2014, compared with 89 percent of non-low-income students—a 14.4 percentage point gap. The gap for students with disabilities is more than 21 percentage points. It’s 14.7 percentage points for African-American students and 10.9 percentage points for Hispanic/Latino students.
These graduation gaps provide a clear map showing us where we need to concentrate our efforts going forward.
But gaps are not the only trouble spot. There are still roughly 1,000 low-graduation-rate high schools with 300 or more students. When including high schools with student populations of at least 100 students, there are 2,397 low-graduation-rate high schools across the nation, enrolling 1.23 million students.
New research shows that a disproportionate number of the low-graduation-rate schools with 100 or more students are alternative, charter or virtual schools. Regular district high schools account for 41 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools and are where the majority of students who do not graduate on time can be found.
Although alternative, charter, and virtual schools collectively make up 14 percent of high schools and enroll 8 percent of high school students, the 2016 Building a Grad Nation Report states that they make up 52 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools nationwide and produce 20 percent of nongraduates.
We must determine, as the report’s authors note, “when and where these schools are part of the solution or a wrong turn on the path to 90 percent graduation rates for all students.” And we must ensure that schools that work with our most vulnerable students have the drive and the resources to get them to graduation.
Is the Metric Valid?
As the national high school graduation rate continues to rise, leading media outlets and respected commentators—including the New York Times, NPR, and the Fordham Institute—have raised serious questions. Are some districts lowering the bar or cooking the books to increase graduation rates? What does it mean when states discontinue or change high school exit exams? Should diplomas certify that all graduates are college ready?
There are no easy answers, and these questions deserve close examination.
Overall the evidence shows that in most places high school graduation rates and more rigorous standards are rising together. The results of the NAEP High School Transcript Study show that the trends are moving in the right direction: “In 2009, graduates earned over three credits more than their 1990 counterparts, or about 420 additional hours of instruction during their high school careers.” And the same study reports that a “greater percentage of 2009 graduates completed more challenging curriculum levels than 1990 or 2005 graduates.”
Since 2009, the number of students taking the ACT and SAT is way up. If standards were being lowered, one would expect scores to decrease, but they have stayed basically flat. In contrast, the number of students taking AP tests is way up, as is the number of students passing at least one. This is a step in the right direction.
Recently released NAEP scores show that reading scores have stagnated, while math scores have dropped slightly. At a time of rising graduation rates, this seeming disconnect between attainment (graduation) and achievement (NAEP scores) demands closer analysis. And there are many reasons to begin a national conversation about how we can better prepare all students for life after high school.
Documented examples of gaming the system are comparatively rare and don’t involve enough students to have a major impact on graduation rates. For example, after admitting that dropouts had been misclassified as transfers, Chicago school officials lowered the reported official graduation rate for 2014 from 69.4 percent to 66.3 percent. Still generally in the same (too low) ballpark but with an increase over previous years.
While some see the elimination of exit exams as an indication of lower standards, research published by Stanford’s Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice shows that in some states, like California, exit exams have negatively impacted graduation rates without improving student achievement.
Indeed, several studies, including one by Saul Geiser and Maria Veronica Santelices at the University of California, Berkeley, make the case that grade point average is a better predictor of success in college than standardized tests anyway.
Still, vigilance is warranted. The real goal is not just to graduate more young people but to keep more young people on the path to adult success. Giving false diplomas or passing students who aren’t ready doesn’t serve the larger purpose or do anyone any favors.
That’s why those of us working to increase graduation rates are equally forceful in insisting that we must continue to raise the bar and the value of a diploma.
The challenge of raising graduation rates and graduation standards doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Districts that are making progress are doing some combination of smart things, like using data to make decisions, working to increase teacher quality, raising expectations for all students, paying attention to early warning signs, adding more caring adults into the lives of young people living in challenging circumstances, fighting chronic absenteeism, and eliminating disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact students of color.
It isn’t rocket science. Hard work and careful implementation can lead to great results, even for the students who many expect to fail.
In today’s economy, a high school diploma doesn’t guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost certain failure. It is our responsibility to prevent young people from forfeiting and foreclosing their futures.
We’ve demonstrated that progress is possible, and now we must redouble our efforts to help millions more young people get and stay on track to adult success.