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Why Are Graduation Rates Rising?

By Walt Gardner — December 22, 2017 1 min read

At first glance, the new report from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that the graduation rate for high school students from all groups reached a record high in 2016 is cause for celebration (“Raising graduation rates, one expectation at a time,” Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 5). But I think it’s premature to break out the champaign.

The No. 1 cause is said to be higher expectations by teachers. I don’t doubt that these are important, but I question if they alone are the reason. If they were, why hasn’t the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, confirmed this explanation? Moreover, why haven’t equally high teacher expectations produced similar results in the past? Have teachers changed that much in the last few years?

The widely cited Stanford University study of progress in Chicago Public Schools showing above average progress in raising reading and math scores for elementary schools is attributed to the attitudes of educators. I admire high flying schools for what they’ve been able to accomplish. But I think their achievements are neither sustainable nor scalable. That’s why I remain skeptical about the power of high teacher expectations.

I think the far more likely reason for the record high graduation rate is lowered standards. To avoid being labeled failing, schools encourage students on the verge of dropping out to transfer to alternative schools or opt for credit-recovery programs. What they are doing is essentially committing fraud. Eventually, the truth will emerge, which is why the latest data need to be taken with a dose of salt.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.