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College & Workforce Readiness

High School Graduation Rates Continue to Rise

By Caralee J. Adams — May 13, 2015 7 min read
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This is a cross post from Curriculum Matters


The on-time high school graduation rate in the United States reached a record high of 81.4 percent in 2013 and is on track to reach 90 percent by 2020, according to a new report released Tuesday by the GradNation campaign. This is the third year in a row that the rate has remained on track to meet that 2020 goal. But challenges still exist including wide graduation gaps between low-income and minority students and their more-advantaged peers. Several key states have a lot of work to do to make sure progress continues.

The “2015 Building a Grad Nation” report is the sixth update by the GradNation campaign, a joint project of America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, Everyone Graduates Center and the Alliance for an Excellent Education. It uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education.

Overall, the news was promising. The graduation rate for the Class of 2013 reached a record high of 81.4 percent, up 1.4 percent from the previous year and 2.4 percent from 2011. To reach the 2020 goal, the class of 2020 must have 310,000 more graduates than the class of 2013.

It’s not an insurmountable task. But states must continue to close the achievement gap between minority and low-income students and their peers. Some states made great progress on that front, but in others the gap is actually widening.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan credited teachers, students, parents and community partners for improving graduation rates, but said work still needs to be done.

”...while we should be encouraged by projections like the one in this year’s Grad Nation report, we know that more hard work remains to truly prepare all--not just some--students for success in college, careers, and life,” he said in a news release. “Education must be the equalizer that can help overcome the odds stacked against too many of our students.”

The 2015 Building a Grad Nation report offers several recommendations for policymakers to keep the graduation rate on track.

Among the recommendations:

  • eradicate zero-tolerance discipline policies;
  • expand the use of early warning indicators so educators can intervene sooner;
  • make state funding more equitable to improve the opportunities afforded to low-income students;
  • limit alternative-exit options for special education students;
  • increase the use of consistent and comparable data.

Here are some of the highlights of the report:

State-by-State Progress

Overall, 29 states equalled or exceeded the national average and six states were within 2 percentage points of reaching the 90 percent goal. But 14 states are not on pace with graduation rates of between 69 percent and 78 percent.

Fifty-five percent of public high school students live in 10 states. GradNation attributes much of the nationwide progress to gains in some of those states between 2011 and 2013. Some of those 10 states, including California, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina improved. But in others, the graduation rate flatlined or actually declined, including in New York, Illinois, Washington and Arizona.

Nevada’s graduation rate improved the most between 2011 and 2013 (up 8.7 percentage points) while Wyoming had the biggest drop (down 3 percentage points). Iowa had the highest graduation rate (89.7 percent). Oregon had the lowest (68.7 percent).

Graduation Gaps: Winners and Losers

One of the biggest challenges to meeting the 2020 goal is closing what the report terms a “gaping” gap in graduation rates between low-income and minority students and their peers.

On the income-gap front (the report calls it the “opportunity gap”) high- and middle-income students were already close to meeting the 90 percent goal with an 88.2 percent graduation rate. In other words, graduating on-time is pretty much the norm for those students, according to the report. But the graduation rate for low-income students was 15 percentage points lower. The gap had narrowed in 28 states but widened in 18 since 2011.

Some states were stars in closing the opportunity gap. Kentucky, for example, “stands out as a beacon,” according to the report. That state’s graduation rate for low-income students (85 percent) was almost identical to the rate for middle- or high-income students. Connecticut also did well, closing its opportunity gap by 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2013, more than any other state.

The gap widened the most in North Dakota.

When it came to students of color, the nation as a whole saw progress. Enrollment of Hispanic/Latino and African-American students is growing, and graduation rates for those groups steadily rose. But the gap still exists. The graduation rates for Hispanic/Latino and African-American students were 75.2 percent and 70.7 percent, respectively, compared to 86.6 percent for white students and 88.7 percent for Asian students.

The lack of progress in some key states threatens to erase the nationwide gains. The graduation rate of African-American students declined significantly in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California, and Illinois. Those states educate about 40 percent of the nation’s African-American students, according to the report.

Six states collectively educate more than 70 percent of the nation’s Hispanic/Latino students, yet graduation rates for that group rose above the national average in only one of them (Texas).

Students with disabilities continued to lag behind, too. The group’s 61.9 percent graduation rate was 2.9 percentage points higher than in 2011 but remained 20 points lower than the national average.

Big High Schools

One of the keys to reaching the 2020 goal lies with the nation’s largest school districts. The report says 500 large public school districts (enrollments of 15,000 or more) collectively educate 40 percent of all public school students including 58 percent of the nation’s African-American and Hispanic/Latino students, and 47 percent of its low-income students. Of these schools, 212 saw gains in graduation rates of 4 percentage points or more since 2011 and 169 made little to no improvement or declined.

Dropout Factories

The number of so-called “dropout factories” continued to decline, which helped to improve the graduation rates among students of color. Dropout factories refer to high schools with chronically low graduation rates. Historically, their enrollment has consisted almost exclusively of low-income and minority students. The number of dropout factories declined by more than 200 between 2012 and 2013, and by more than 800 since 2002.

[UPDATED 4:30 p.m.]

The launch of the GradNation report Tuesday included a morning panel discussion by some of the coalition leaders about the data. In an afternoon session Gen. Colin Powell and author Robert Putnam talked about the opportunity gap and its implications for the American Dream.

At the morning session, John Bridgeland, president of Civic Enterprises and Dr. Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates center at Johns Hopkins University, described how some states or districts narrowed their graduation gaps. They mentioned Fresno, Calif.; Tacoma, Washington; Connecticut, and Kentucky. They have policies that focus on data, collaboration, and addressing the “whole child” including social emotional development. Case studies are discussed in the report.

  • Fresno collaborated with other key districts to create some best practices. It focuses on students’ out-of-school needs and has an early warning system to catch students before they fall through the cracks.
  • Tacoma, where all eight high schools were once dropout factories, the district offers a College Bound program for low income 7th and 8th grade students. They get financial aid if they graduate.
  • Connecticut launched an effort to target its lowest-performing schools
  • Kentucky, Balfanz said, stresses accountability. Principals and superintendents are held accountable for how their schools do. The state developed a statewide focus on Appalachian students. It also raised the bar on what it considers an acceptable graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent.

Balfanz highlighted the importance of improving the graduation rates of low-income students.

In order to reach the 2020 goal, 310,000 more students (or “three Rose Bowls of kids” as Balfanz said) must graduate in the class of 2020 than graduated in the class of 2013. But here’s the kicker: In order for all subgroups to meet that 90 percent goal, four out of every five students in that Rose Bowl stadium must be low-income students. One in three must be African-American, and one in three must be Hispanic/Latino. A full 40 percent must be students with disabilities, he said.

“That gives you a clue on where we’re struggling,” he said.

Later in the day, Gen. Powell and Putnam framed graduation rates as crucial to ensuring all children can realize the American Dream.

Powell said the solution isn’t just found in the classroom.

“It comes down to the concept of home, the concept of family, and realizing children need structure,” he saidl.

Both men lauded the benefits of starting to educate a child at birth.

Putnam laid out the stark difference income level makes in whether a child fails or succeeds.

“All kids do dumb things,” he said. “If you’re a middle class kid and if you get into a crash, you have airbags deploy to protect you. When a poor kid does something equally as dumb, there are no airbags.”

One of the best solutions, he said, “is to convince those on the upper end (of income levels) that this is their problem. Getting all of our fellow citizens to understand that this is a big deal.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.