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National Graduation Rate Increases to All-Time High of 82 Percent

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 15, 2015 4 min read
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The graduation rate for the nation’s class of 2014 reached a record 82 percent, an increase of 1 percentage point from the class of 2013’s graduation rate, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday.

Graduation rates for several student demographics rose as well from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014, except for American Indian and Alaskan Native students, for whom rates remained virtually flat. Significant gaps remain, particularly between white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts, although those gaps have shrunk recently, and economically disadvantaged students also continue to lag behind.

The graduation rate for low-income students rose by 1.3 percentage points to 75 percent from 2013 to 2014, and black students also saw a relatively notable increase of 1.8 percentage points, to roughly 73 percent. See the table below from the Education Department:

“We can take pride as a nation in knowing that we’re seeing promising gains, including for students of color,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement accompanying the release.

In a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Duncan highlighted “the three-year gains for every subgroup of students.”

And he also touted declining dropout rates, which he discussed last month in conjunction with a report also showing a decrease in the number of high schools where two-thirds of students fail to graduate.

But in response to a question about the extent to which the graduation rate indicates the academic success and preparedness of students, Duncan said it remains important for schools and policymakers to continue to look to the most successful states when it comes to graduation rates, particularly those that have made a lot of progress recently.

“I’m always looking at the pace of change. You have some states where the pace of change is accelerating, and you have a handful of states where graduation rates actually went down this year,” Duncan said.

The Education Department has been talking up a graduation rate increase for some time now. Just under two months ago, Duncan said in a chat with reporters that preliminary data indicated that the graduation rate would rise again for 2013-14.

“It looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction,” Duncan said at the time.

As my co-blogger Alyson Klein wrote in October, Duncan has credited two of his more prominent initiatives—the School Improvement Grant program and No Child Left Behind Act waivers—with helping to boost the nation’s rising graduation rate, but it’s unclear if (and to what extent) SIG and NCLB waivers deserve that credit. After all, as experts pointed out to her, waivers have only been in place for about three years. And the academic data from SIG isn’t cause for clear, untroubled celebration.

And some are concerned that rising graduation rates might be obscuring important shortfalls when it comes to what a high school diploma means for students.

An analysis of states’ diploma requirements for the class of 2014 by Achieve found that in “most states there are more questions than answers about the true value of a high school diploma.”

Achieve found, for example, that in 26 states offering multiple pathways to a diploma, at least one option fell short of what the group said were college- and career-ready expectations in English/language arts and math. And 20 states don’t offer any diploma that requires students to meet college- and career-ready expectations in E/LA and math.

Not everyone is uniformly pleased with Tuesday’s graduation-rate news itself.

In a statement, GradNation—a coalition of groups pushing to increase the national graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020—praised the 82-percent graduation rate, but noted that today’s news also means that, if the rate increases at its current trajectory, the U.S. will miss out on that 90 percent goal. That’s the first time the U.S. has gotten off track for that goal, GradNation said, in four years.

“Second, while there have been some significant gains for key subgroups, the nation continues to suffer from gaps in graduation rates affecting students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English-language learners,” GradNation said in a statement.

You might be wondering how the Every Student Succeeds Act deals with graduation rates. One notable feature of the new federal education law, signed by President Barack Obama last week, is that it requires states to intervene in schools that are commonly referred to as “dropout factories,” more specifically those high schools that failed to graduate more than two-thirds of their students.

In addition, states must set goals that address graduation rates. And graduation rates must be a part of states’ accountability systems for high schools.

See the list of graduation rates for the class of 2014 by state and student demographics in the list from the Education Department below:

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