Education Policy & Trends

Grad Rate Continues Rising with Pockets of Despair

For the fifth year running, the country saw a lift in its national high school graduation rate, growing to 83.2 percent in 2015 from 82.3 percent in 2014. But growth at that pace is too slow to reach the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. To meet the target, the graduation rate will need to increase 1.4 percentage points annually. For 2015, the rate went up by only 0.9 percent. Just half of America's states are on the way to reaching the goal by 2020.

While that data is "sobering," as one author of "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates" put it, another aspect of the work deserves to be celebrated: "Progress since 2001 in raising high school graduation rates has resulted in 2.8 million more students graduating from high school rather than dropping out." Since the 2010–2011 school year, the national high school graduation rate is up more than four percentage points, rising from 79 percent to a record high of 83.2 percent in 2015. Over this same five-year period the graduation rates for almost every state and student subgroup is up. Each one-point increase represents hundreds of thousands of young people who land in a better position for post-secondary enrollment, the report pointed out.

The Grad Nation report is a joint project of four education organizations: Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University, working with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Although the report has been produced for the last 10 years, this year's publication marks the fifth year that states have used the "Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate" (ACGR), a common formula for collecting graduation statistics across states and among various subgroups.

This year's report identifies five areas that are especially important to work on if the United States has any chance of meeting its national goal for graduation rates:

Raising the number of low-income students who graduate. "Nearly half of the country's class of 2015 cohort — 48.2 percent, a slight increase from 2014 — came from low-income families," the report stated. The gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers currently stands at 13.7 percentage points.

Lifting the number of Black and Hispanic/Latin students who graduate. These groups made the greatest gains — nine and 15 percentage points, respectively — in graduation rates between 2006 and 2012. "It's really up to the states to drive their improvements," noted co-author Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center, during a webinar that explored the research. "What we find in this report [is that] every state has some level of different challenge." For example, he said, the places with the greatest gaps for students of color tend to be in the Midwest, "places like Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin." For Latinos, the gaps surface in five states, where there are large cohorts: New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, New York and Oregon.

Elevating the success of students with disabilities. Thirty-three states report high school graduation rates below 70 percent for this group in 2015; almost half had graduation rates below 60 percent. According to Balfanz, 90 percent of students with disabilities are "fully capable of earning a standard state diploma." New England states are struggling the most with this population of students, he added. "They have the highest graduation rates. They also on average identify more students for special ed services than other states. In some of them, as [many] as 20 percent of students are getting special ed services. But they haven't figured out how to graduate those kids."

Boosting the number of English language learners who graduate. "Barely a third of ELL students are graduating on time," in Arizona and New York, the research found. Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia graduate less than half of their ELL students. A third of ELLs who failed to graduate on time are located in California alone.

Tackling the issue of "low graduation rate high schools." When reporting began, there were 2.5 million students enrolled in a thousand "large, low-graduation-rate high schools." ("Large" is defined as having at least 300 students.) That number has been cut in half, said Balfanz, and now fewer than 900,000 students attend them.

He added that this was one of the few areas where the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) maintains federal control. Under ESSA states must identify for intervention and support those high schools that enroll 100 or more students that graduate less than two-thirds of students on time. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't "give states choice.... The law mandates you must do comprehensive reforms and use evidence-based strategies," he said.

The report identified two types of low-graduation high schools — "regular" and "alternative." The latter type is a particular area of concern for the researchers. "Some of these schools do amazing work," Balfanz noted. Then there are the others — "for-profit chains of alternative schools that are literally in shopping malls.... They often run kids through three shifts a day: 'Come for your four hours, work on a computer, have an adult walking around to help you if you need it. [Time for the] next shift.'"

The for-profit motive makes for a conflict of interest, he suggested. "They need students to make money, so they're recruiting." As reported earlier this year by ProPublica, some school officials are "dodging" their poor accountability ratings by sending their struggling students to these programs to boost their graduation rates. "We have to keep our eye on that, because that's opening an escape valve for people that ultimately has very low outcomes," Balfanz warned.

The report offered several policy recommendations: that education leaders create high-quality ESSA implementations plans; develop evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools; get their cohort rate right by improving uniformity and transparency in the ACGR; report extended-year graduation rates; and strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools.

However, a panel discussion revealed more practical ideas for improvements in the graduation rate.

Anthony Terrell, principal for Mt. Vernon High School, Fairfax, VA, said his school focused on the transition from middle to high school. "We know that students that have a successful freshman year stay in school, and they graduate." The high school has partnered with its feeder middle schools to target the eighth graders who are struggling because "those are the folks who will drop out." The high school sponsors "summer jumpstart camps" for students between grades 8 and 9 "to get them acclimated to high school before it starts." His school also features smaller grade 9 classes. "We know that Algebra 1 is a gatekeeper class to graduation. We make sure our Algebra 1 classes are our smallest math class and that we have the best teachers teaching those classes."

Jennifer DePaoli, senior research and policy advisor at Civic Enterprises and the lead author of the report, advised districts to focus on some of the "easiest things" that tend to "get overlooked." For example, she said, schools already collect data on absenteeism, course performance and discipline issues, which are all big indicators for the likelihood of student success. The problem is that the information isn't put "in any usable form for teachers to use with students."

Another suggestion from DePaoli: to focus on freshman — "making sure that each freshman coming in has a connection to an adult in that building, developing that relationship, [engaging] them,... having advisories in the morning so those kids have someplace to go and have somebody they feel comfortable talking to."

Sometimes, she pointed out, "Those simple things that we want to say, 'No, that can't possibly be the solution,' that's the solution."

The 2017 report was sponsored by AT&T and State Farm.

The full report is openly available along with graphics, state-by-state data and other resources on the Grad Nation website here.