There seems to be no consensus about whether the across-the-board increases in U.S. graduation rates reported by the federal government last week are the result of No Child Left Behind-era accountability mechanisms or the data-based decisionmaking stressed under the Obama administration, more early-warning systems to identify potential dropouts, or fewer high school exit exams.
But whatever the reason, the numbers themselves gave educators and policymakers reason for cautious optimism. The new data show that U.S. students are graduating at record numbers for the fifth year in a row, with improvements for students of different racial and language backgrounds, as well as those in poverty or with disabilities.
The graduation rate for the high school class of 2015-16 is nearly a whole point higher than the one for the previous year’s class, which was 83.2 percent, according to the new data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The rate measures the proportion of each freshman class that earns a diploma four years later.
“The improvements shown are encouraging. Every high school graduation is an important milestone worthy of celebration. But it’s important to remember graduation is but another step in a lifelong journey,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a tweet a day after the results were released.
It was a much more subdued reaction than the response in prior years to rising graduation rates. President Barack Obama and his longest-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, used rising graduation rates to make the case that the administration’s policies—including new resources and turnaround approaches for struggling schools—had a positive impact on student achievement. By contrast, DeVos has focused on the need to create private school choice.
Diane Stark Rentner, the deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, suggested the rising graduation rate could be due in part to the Obama-era focus on boosting graduation rates as part of state waivers to NCLB’s accountability rules.
But Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which studies academic standards and accountability, suggested NCLB-era accountability itself could explain the gains, adding, “there is a plausible case to be made that the education system is doing a better job for more of these kids, especially for disadvantaged subgroups.”
The graduation rates for black students and for students who are learning English each rose 1.8 percentage points in one year. The rates for low-income students and Hispanic students each rose 1.5 points since the previous year. Students with disabilities saw a gain of nearly a full percentage point.
But stubborn gaps remain.
“Although students of color and low-income students are graduating at higher rates, we must be mindful that there are still significant gaps for historically underserved students which translate into lost potential for our communities and our country,” said John B. King, Jr., a former education secretary under Obama and the current president and CEO of the Education Trust.
For example, Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia—all states with relatively small populations of English-learners—had graduation rates for English-learners that topped 80 percent, and in California, the state with the largest K-12 ELL enrollment, 72 percent of English-learners in the class of 2016 graduated in four years. That marks a 7 percent increase over the past two years.
But a number of states fell well below the national average, including six that had less than half of their ELL students graduate on time. That group includes New York, which has the fourth-highest ELL enrollment in the nation.
And while Native American high school graduation rates have increased by 7 percent in the past five years, the numbers remain “problematic,” said Susan Faircloth, a professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and an enrolled member of the Coharie Tribe. Native Americans nationwide still have the lowest graduation rates of any racial subgroup.
State Improvements Vary
John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer at Civic Enterprises, which works with several other groups to monitor and report on the high school graduation rate in its annual “Building a Grad Nation” report, said the new high point is a result of “a sustained and aggressive focus” on the issue in the last decade. But, he added, good national graduation rates can also camouflage wide variations.
Iowa led the nation, with 91.3 percent of the class of 2016 graduating. West Virginia, in the top three with 89.9 percent graduating, also showed the fastest growth: 3.3 percentage points in the last year, and 12 percentage points since 2010-11.
Since 2008, West Virginia has, among other initiatives, raised its mandatory schooling age from 16 to 17, funded special education “graduation counselors” to keep students on track, and created a statewide early-warning system to spot students at risk of dropping out as early as 1st grade.
“A lot of it was a change in culture, identifying those students early based on attendance and being proactive before it got to the point where [students] felt they couldn’t be successful and wanted to drop out,” said Michele Blatt, the assistant superintendent of the division of support and accountability for the state education department.
Every state has shown graduation gains since the class of 2011 except Wyoming, which has held steady since then—but 10 states saw a decline from the class of 2015 to the class of 2016.
Fordham’s Petrilli warned there is also “reason to be nervous about the rapid progress” in the graduation rate, since requirements for diplomas can be “squishy” and some high schools decide to make themselves look good by lowering standards.
Are the Gains Real?
Media investigations have found that some schools improve their graduation numbers by not counting some low-performing students in their graduating classes. Others try to get rid of students who are at risk of dropping out by encouraging them to transfer to alternative schools or by using credit-recovery programs that critics say are less rigorous than the standard courses.
One recent investigation found that a school in Washington, D.C., graduated half of its students last year even though they had missed three months of school—too much to have earned diplomas.
The most recent “Building a Grad Nation” report took on the question of inflated graduation rates, and concluded it’s unlikely the national graduation rate is inflated. But it did find evidence that shortcuts could have pushed the numbers up in six unnamed states.
The graduation rate of students with disabilities nationwide rose in the 2015-16 school year, to 66 percent from 64.6 percent the year before, but other measures of achievement for special education students are stagnant, such as the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading.
“It is tough to reconcile the different stories that these different measures tell,” said Marie O’Hara, the associate director of policy and practice for Achieve.
Staff Writers Catherine Gewertz, Alyson Klein, Corey Mitchell, Christina A. Samuels, and Sarah D. Sparks, and Education Week Research Analysts Alex Harwin and Sterling Lloyd, contributed to this article.
Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Graduation Rates Rise for All, Experts Differ on Causes