Yes, High School Graduation is Up, but Not Uniformly

A group of organizations monitoring the high school graduation rate report that the country is overall behind in the stated goal of seeing 90 percent of students graduating annually by the year 2020. While meeting that goal will require an increase of at least 1.3 percentage points each year in the number of people who graduate, the 2013-2014 school year rate of growth was only 0.9 percent, reaching 82.3 percent.

Likewise, reported "Building a Grad Nation," even as the United States Department of Education applauded a graduation rate that is the highest on record, what received less attention were the hefty gaps for specific groups of students.

  • 35 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 English-language learners, and seven of those states have ELL graduation rates under 50 percent;
  • 33 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 students with disabilities, and seven graduate less than half;
  • 17 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 African American students;
  • 16 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 low-income students;
  • 11 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 Hispanic/Latino students; and
  • 10 states graduate fewer than seven in 10 students in all five subgroups.

The report on graduation rates was the result of a joint research project undertaken by four organizations. It was co-authored by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and released in partnership with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The work was funded as part of an education initiative by AT&T.

"These numbers tell a cautionary story of tremendous progress and sobering challenge," said John Bridgeland, co-author and CEO of Civic Enterprises, in a statement. "Yes, we are making national progress, but too many students are being left behind in today's economy. Without a high school diploma, they won't have a chance at the American dream."

For example, almost half of all public school students come from low-income families. Among that segment, fewer than 75 percent graduate on time, compared to 89 percent for non-low-income students. The gap is largest in South Dakota, where there's a difference of 26 percentage points between the two groups, and lowest in Indiana, where the variance is only four percentage points.

Among students with disabilities, who make up about 13 percent of all students in public schools, the overall graduation rate is 63 percent, vs. 85 percent for students without disabilities. That gap ranges from a high of 54.5 percentage points in Mississippi to a low of 4 percentage points in Arkansas.

So far, the report noted, one state has already reached the national goal. In 2014 Iowa had a 90.5 percent graduation rate. Four additional states — Nebraska, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Texas — are within shouting distance of the goal, each just shy of two percentage points. On the other end is New Mexico, which, at 68.5 percent, has the lowest number of graduating students.

Three states — South Dakota, Wyoming and Arizona — have experienced declines in graduation rates over the previous four years. The results are especially "troublesome" for the latter two states, the researchers wrote, because they graduate fewer than 80 percent of their students and "are well off pace" to reaching the 90 percent goal.

The report also identified about a thousand "dropout factories," schools where the promotion rate falls under six in 10 students. The total enrollment for those schools is about a million students, and the majority (65 percent) are from low-income homes; 63 percent are either African American or Hispanic/Latino. "It is clear," the report stated, "these schools and students need greater support to improve and become places where graduation is the norm."

"The nation has fallen off track to reaching the GradNation goal and huge graduation rate gaps still exist for many," concluded the report. "If we are to meet our nation's greatest ideals, we cannot be satisfied with graduating only the easiest to reach students and much work lies ahead to ensure opportunity exists for every student."

This spring the project will release a more extensive annual update that will highlight the progress that is being made to raise graduation rates for student subgroups.

The current "data brief" is available online on the GradNation Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.