The on-time graduation rates in the nation’s public high schools have hit historic highs. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 81 percent of the class of 2013 graduated within four years, as tabulated by the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). The ACGR, which states use to fulfill accountability requirements under the No Child Left Behind law, has climbed 2 percentage points since 2011, when the Education Department first started requiring states to calculate and report graduation rates using this method. Other methods for calculating graduation rates have shown similar upward trends.
Despite recent progress, students still face very different odds of on-time graduation depending upon where they live.
The gap between the highest- and lowest-performing jurisdictions was 28 percentage points in 2013. At one end of the scale was Iowa, with a graduation rate of 90 percent; at the other end, 62 percent of the class of 2013 graduated on time in the District of Columbia. These same two jurisdictions also bookended the nation in 2011, when the gap between them was 29 percentage points. From 2011 to 2013, Nevada experienced the most growth (a gain of 9 percentage points) while graduation rates declined slightly in three states— Arizona, Illinois, and Wyoming. A caveat is that ACGR data was unavailable for Idaho in 2013 and from Kentucky and Oklahoma in 2011.
Students with disabilities, the focus of Diplomas Count 2015, have a 62 percent on-time graduation rate, which is 19 percentage points lower than the overall national rate. Arkansas has the highest on-time graduation rate for students with disabilities (80 percent). In every state, graduation rates are lower for students with disabilities than for the student population at large. The largest gap—53 percentage points—is found in Mississippi, which has the nation’s lowest on-time graduation rate for students with disabilities (23 percent). Alabama has the smallest gap at 3 percentage points.
Disparities in high school completion based on economic status vary from state to state. Graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students in three states—Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota—are more than 15 percentage points lower than the state average for all students. In five states and the District of Columbia, by contrast, economically defined divides in graduation fall below 5 points.
The on-time graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency (LEP) is 61 percent, 20 percentage points lower than the national average. In two states—Arizona and Nevada—fewer than a quarter of LEP students graduate on time.
Students from low-income families are also less likely to graduate on time, nationwide and for every state. Their graduation rate is 73 percent nationally, 8 percentage points lower than the U.S. average. Graduation rates for low-income students range from 85 percent in Kentucky and Texas to 59 percent in the District of Columbia. The poverty gap reaches 16 percentage points in Minnesota and shrinks to about 1 percentage point in Kentucky.
Among major racial and ethnic groups, on-time graduation rates range from 89 percent for Asians to 70 percent for American Indians. Although a large body of research suggests that black and Hispanic students have made large gains over the past decade, they continue to graduate at lower rates than Asians and whites.
Graduation rates for students with disabilities, calculated using the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) method, are lower than the statewide average in every state, but gaps range from 53 percentage points in Mississippi to 3 percentage points in Alabama. The U.S. Department of Education cautions that variation in the way that states have implemented ACGR provisions may result in potential differences in calculations across states, particularly with respect to students with disabilities. Independent analysts have expressed concern that differences in how states define disability status for their graduation-rate calculations may contribute to variation in the size of gaps across the nation.
Diplomas Count 2015 marks the first time that the Education Week Research Center has used the ACGR as the main source of graduation data. Previously, the center used the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI), a proprietary method created by Christopher B. Swanson of Editorial Projects in Education, or the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, which is tabulated by the National Center for Education Statistics. Both of these methods rely on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD) database. Unlike these methods, the ACGR tracks individual students longitudinally, accounting for transfers and deaths.
An additional difference is that, for the purposes of the No Child Left Behind law, states are required to calculate this rate for students with disabilities and certain other groups whose graduation data are not tracked as part of the CCD.
Although states follow federal guidelines for their ACGR calculations, they are given some leeway, which can result in inconsistency with respect to implementation of those national rules. One source of inconsistency is that each state sets its own rules for determining which students are included in the subgroup cohorts for calculating the ACGR. For instance, a student who exits special education in grade 11 might be included in the special education graduation rate in one state, but not in another.
Students with additional economic and educational challenges graduate at lower rates, on average, than their more advantaged classmates. For the high school class of 2013, graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students (73 percent) are 8 percentage points lower than the national average. Gaps defined by disability and limited-English-proficiency status stand at 19 and 20 points, respectively.
Like the CPI and the AFGR, the ACGR is based on the number of students who receive a “regular high school diploma.” However, states have different definitions of “regular high school diploma” as well as different requirements for the coursework students must complete in order to qualify for regular diplomas. This variation may have a differential impact on subgroups of students.
A 2013 report by the education reform organization Achieve and the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis provides two examples of this type of state-level variation specific to students with disabilities: Kentucky requires all students to complete 22 credits prior to earning a “regular high school diploma” but allows local school boards to substitute alternative courses for students with disabilities. In Arkansas, graduation course-credit requirements for students with disabilities are determined by the individualized education program (IEP), even when these students earn a “regular high school diploma.”