College & Workforce Readiness

Doubting That ‘Record’ 83 Percent High School Graduation Rate?

By Catherine Gewertz — October 18, 2016 3 min read
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Unless you were taking a really long, deep nap yesterday, you heard that the national high school graduate rate has reached 83.2 percent. President Obama himself announced this news at a high school in Washington, D.C., calling the new grad rate the “highest on record.”

This news was greeted with applause in many quarters: Yay, us! We’re producing more high school graduates! And that’s good, right? That means they’re ready to go to college, or into job-training programs that promise them a good living. Woo-hoo!

That’s where things get tricky, and some of us start to feel like the cranky old farts who are spoiling the party. Because there are some good reasons to wonder just how marvelous this 83 percent grad rate is. (My colleague Alyson Klein has the data breakdowns for you at Politics K-12, and you can watch a video of Obama’s remarks here.)

Before you accuse me of having a terminal case of sourpuss, let me say that there were some bits of news in the announcement that could be cause for optimism. The biggest grad-rate gains were in student groups who’ve traditionally struggled the most with high school completion: Students in special education, those learning English, low-income students, African-American students, and Latino students.

The question is what those gains mean. How do you make sense of the idea that more students are walking away with diplomas, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that they’re not learning any more these days than they were years ago?

And what about this pesky problem: Many states award a variety of different diplomas, some of which connote strong preparation for jobs and college, and some of which, um, don’t. How much should we rejoice in more teenagers graduating from high school, when some of them have most certainly completed a watered-down course of study?

As Michael Cohen of Achieve, which documented the different-diplomas phenomenon, said: a higher graduation rate is a “positive development” overall, since students with diplomas have better job and college prospects. But for too many students, a diploma provides only a “false sense of achievement” that will require remediation before any meaningful success in work or higher education, he said.

For years now, some folks who monitor the high school space have been raising questions about whether graduation rates are being inflated in part because of quick-hit computer-based courses that let students recover credits in classes they failed.

And many states that used to require students to pass exit exams to earn diplomas have dropped them. Some have even gone as far as awarding retroactive diplomas to students who failed their state’s exit exam years ago. And as National Public Radio reported, some districts are not above inflating their grad rates by playing games with “alternative” exit exams, or student-dropout or -transfer data.

Of course it could be that some dynamics in K-12 education in recent years are producing actual, real improvements in high school that are translating into higher graduation rates. But what are they? That answer is far from clear.

President Obama tried to take credit for some of the gain by highlighting roles for some of his priority programs, such as sharpening the focus on “dropout factories,” and on early-warning systems that provide interventions for students who are struggling. (In her post on Politics K-12, Alyson explores whether Obama should be able to take credit for better grad rate.)

Clearly, some schools, districts and states are making headway in their work to help more students complete high school. But how much of the new, record-high graduation rate is attributable to that work, and how much is a result of lowered bars or game-playing, is a big question mark.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.