Diplomas Count 2009: Broader Horizons

Executive Summary

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At a time when only seven in 10 American students graduate from high school in four years, President Barack Obama is demanding that the nation raise its educational sights even higher, asking all Americans to commit to at least one year of education after high school.

Ultimately, he wants the United States to retake a pre-eminent place in the global education arena by boasting the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

President Obama is the most prominent of a growing number of American policymakers to embrace the idea that some form of postsecondary education is crucial to students’ success after high school. The 2009 edition of Diplomas Count, titled Broader Horizons: The Challenge of College Readiness for All Students, examines that idea.

As this report points out, what it means to be ready to attend college is open to argument, with no firm consensus on how to measure college readiness or ensure that all students clear such a bar.

Moreover, high schools aren’t equally equipped to help students navigate the college-application and financial-aid system—a particularly difficult process for low-income youths.

And the call for more attention to college-going rates comes amid troubling data on the proportion of U.S. students who graduate from high school in the traditional four-year timespan.

Graduation-Rate Analysis

Diplomas Count 2009 contains the latest original analysis of high school completion conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which places the national graduation rate at 69.2 percent for the class of 2006. The center calculates graduation rates for the nation, states, and every school district in the country using the Cumulative Promotion Index method and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

The analysis this year shows that from 1996 to 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, the national graduation rate for U.S. public high schools rose by 2.8 percentage points. That gain, averaging about three-tenths of a point annually, signals slow but steady progress over the past decade. In fact, for each of the past six years, the nation’s graduation rate has stayed consistently above the 1996 benchmark level of 66 percent.

While long-term trends have generally been encouraging, the EPE Research Center found that the nation’s graduation rate dropped markedly—by almost a point and a half—between 2005 and 2006. That is the first significant annual decline found in more than a decade.

Exceeding Expectations

Most school districts, our findings show, are performing at roughly the level observers would expect given the districts’ size, poverty rates, concentrations of minority students, per-pupil spending levels, and so forth. Yet, we also found that a substantial number of districts are exceeding expectations, with graduation rates substantially higher than those of other school systems that fit a similar profile.

Nationwide, nearly 2,200 districts exceed expectations for class of 2006 graduation rates by a margin of at least 10 percentage points. In a parallel analysis of changes in graduation rates between 1996 and 2006, we find a similar number of districts with higher-than-expected levels of improvement over the past decade.

The EPE Research Center also conducted an original survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia examining 18 policy indicators related to high school graduation. Those indicators track activity in three broad areas: definitions of college and work readiness, high school completion credentials, and high school exit exams.

The most significant sign of momentum in state policy is an increase in the number of states defining what it means to be college-ready. A formal college-readiness definition provides a road map for high school students preparing for postsecondary coursework. For the class of 2009, 20 states—five more than last year—have described the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level college courses. Those definitions include a variety of components ranging from coursetaking recommendations to minimum scores on standardized tests.

Definitions in 14 states involve academic-content standards, and 13 definitions include coursetaking requirements. Proponents of such measures suggest they have the potential to curb remediation rates at the college level and to help ensure that students arrive on campus prepared to enroll in and succeed at credit-bearing coursework.

Seven states include academic elements and/or “soft skills,” such as time management and successful study habits, as prerequisites for college readiness. Eleven states are in the process of developing an official definition of college readiness, one sign that the momentum is gathering.

This report also examines revised regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act, issued by the U.S. Department of Education this past winter, on graduation rates.

The regulations tighten the rules governing how states must calculate and report graduation rates, and how they will be held to account for them. The highest-profile change requires states to depict their graduation rates the same way: as the proportion of each incoming freshman class that earns standard diplomas four years later. Previously, states could decide for themselves how to calculate their graduation rates. But the regulations also leave room for states to report extended-year rates.

Move to Data Systems

Finally, we explore the movement for state data systems that can help keep track of students and provide information on their academic progress in high school and at postsecondary institutions. The focus on the nation’s school data systems has been spurred, in part, by investments by the federal government since 2005.

Even more money for data systems was set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion economic-stimulus package. This coming fall, the federal government will distribute another $250 million in new competitive grants with stimulus funding.

We highlight the state of Florida, where high schools receive “feedback reports” from the state with a wealth of data to help them fine-tune their programs.

Our reporting also discusses what role new accountability measures at the district and state levels can and should play in focusing high schools on the goal of preparing students to succeed in postsecondary education.

The Education Department, for example, is recommending that states and districts track the number and percentage of students, by school, who graduate from high school and earn at least one year of college credit.

The demand for students to look beyond finishing high school—itself still a challenging goal, based on our analysis of graduation trends—is changing the mission of high schools to focus on success in postsecondary education.

The dimensions of that task, however, are daunting. Studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research have found that while low-income students have high aspirations, even many of those who qualify for college acceptance lack the information and support necessary to clear the hurdles of the application and enrollment process, and never set foot on campus. Still others select colleges that are not good matches for them, and drop out.

Three Commentary essays throughout the report offer further perspective on “next generation” accountability for high schools, the need for state-level leadership to build data systems, and whether it’s realistic to expect all students to attend some college.

We profile a Baltimore high school serving low-income students that is enthusiastically embracing a college-readiness mission, with the help of a local nonprofit group that provides assistance through a paid college counselor.

Says Starletta Jackson, the founding principal of the 5-year-old Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy: “It’s a mentality, that every day they are hearing about and thinking about what happens after high school, that 'I am going to college.'”

Vol. 28, Issue 34, Pages 4-5

Published in Print: June 11, 2009, as Executive Summary
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Diplomas Count is produced with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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