Graduation Rates

Another Year of Grad Growth but States Need to Stay Focused

While the high school graduation rate continues to increase, the rate of gain is too slow to meet the 90 percent national diploma-completion goal by 2020, according to a group of organizations promoting the effort.

The latest "Building a Grad Nation" report found that the graduation rate had reached 84.1 percent by 2016, up from 83.2 percent in 2015 and 79 percent in 2011. In fact, while five states reported graduation rates under 70 percent in 2011, by 2016, no state had a rate below 71 percent.

Much of the growth has occurred among historically underserved student populations. However, the authors emphasized, the gains are "still uneven"; some districts have overall graduation rates that have declined over the past five years and the gap between graduation rates for low-income students and others has widened in some states. Also of concern: inconsistencies in how graduation rates are calculated from district to district and practices by some schools that are "ushering students through who are not ready to graduate."

The research project is a joint effort among Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, the Alliance for Excellent Education and America's Promise Alliance. The report series is sponsored by AT&T and the Lumina Foundation.

According to the report, which is bursting at the seams with data, meeting the 90 percent goal would require almost doubling the latest rate of growth for graduation rates — issuing diplomas to an additional 219,000 more young people each year.

The adjusted cohort graduation rate by state for 2015-2016. Source: "Building a Grad Nation."

The adjusted cohort graduation rate by state for 2015-2016. Source: "Building a Grad Nation."

The research has identified 18 states — many with underserved students, that have "largely driven progress nationally" since 2011, when the report was first published. However, many other states that had graduation rates above the national average in 2011 have slowed their progress, a reversal that should "serve as a wake-up call to all states," reminding them that increasing graduation rates will require a "sustained, consistent effort."

Even though every state has adopted a common way to calculate graduation rates, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, issues of variability have begun cropping up in some states, including, how a first-time ninth-grader is defined, whether or not home-schooled students are included in counts, how transfers among states are handled and how students with disabilities are designated as graduates.

Among the many findings shared in the 2018 report:

  • Black and Hispanic students, in particular, are making graduation rate gains faster than the national average; yet, the overall rate is still below 80 percent, the report stated. The gap between Black and White students exposed an 11.9 percentage point difference; while the difference between Hispanic and White students was 9 percentage points.
  • In almost four in five states, the success rate for low-income students has increased. But 16 states have seen the achievement gap grow larger between low-income youth and "their more affluent peers."
  • In 2016 some 13 percent of all high schools — 2,425 in total — met the ESSA definition for low-graduation: 67 percent or less; that's up from 2,249 in 2015. At least a quarter of schools in four states — New Mexico, Alaska, Florida and Arizona — graduate less than 67 percent of students. The report called out virtual schools, in particular, for attention. A solid three-quarters of virtual schools (76 percent) are low-graduation rate high schools — and most of these are "well below 67 percent."
  • Also, even though more than half of states are within "striking distance" of graduating 90 percent of their students on time, there's no coasting "the final distance." As the researchers noted, "To get to 90 percent, states will need a clear understanding of which districts, schools and students need support to graduate all their students and develop plans tailored to those needs."

The report offered a number of policy and practice suggestions, among them, to align diplomas with college- and career-ready standards. According to the researchers, a misalignment exists between what students need to graduate from high school and what they need to be ready for college. The recommendation: to tighten up alignment between diploma requirements and state institutional admissions criteria.

Another area ripe for improvement: establishing weighted funding formulas to feed more state funding to schools serving students with the greatest needs. Simultaneously, the report added, states and districts need to "work together to determine where those dollars can have the greatest impact and follow the evidence of what works."

Finally, states need to develop plans for reaching the 90 percent on-time goal of graduation. "Using data in this report, as well as available state-level data, states can more accurately capture where their biggest challenges remain above and beyond their low-performing and low-graduation-rate schools," the authors explained. "Creating these plans can better ensure students do not fall through the cracks and districts and schools are better equipped to understand their needs and implement appropriate interventions."

The report is openly available on the GradNation website.

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