College & Workforce Readiness

How Well Is Your State Improving High School Graduation Rates?

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 08, 2017 3 min read
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Nationwide, high school graduation rates have climbed for the past five years, but the improvement has been far from equal across states.

Iowa, for one example, has led other states, both for the class of 2010-11 and the most recent class of 2015-16, when it graduated 91.3 percent of its students. For comparison, the national graduation rate is 84.1 percent, also a record high. (The federal rate measures the proportion of each freshman class that earns a diploma four years later.)

“Iowa has a strong history in education overall, and the graduation rate is one thing we can point to as hard work across the system to get people completing in four years,” said Jay Pennington, the chief of the Iowa education department’s bureau of information and analysis services. He said districts are using a wide array of initiatives, from adding more college counselors or mentors to in some cases, deploying school staff to go door-to-door to find and re-engage students who have left school.

“We’re not resting on our laurels, though,” he said, adding, “We’re expanding postsecondary dashboards for districts to see not just how [students] are completing but how they are faring later on.”

For example, the state now provides data to each district on its graduates’ college enrollment and the percentage of those college-goers who have to take remedial math or English classes. Statewide, college-going has been flat at 71 percent since 2011, even as high school graduation rates have risen, he said, but the remediation rate has declined slightly to 21 percent in that time.

Strong Growth

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.

Back in 2008, when new Title I regulations required states to begin tracking individual students from freshman year through graduation, West Virginia partnered with Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and an early researcher on early-warning signs of a student at risk of dropping out of school.

With Balfanz’s help, the state began to analyze at-risk indicators for students in schools with low graduation rates, and in 2011 launched early-warning systems which later rolled out to all districts statewide. Today, the state tracks early risk factors around attendance, grades, and behavior as early as 1st grade.

Analyzing those data led to other reforms, said Michele Blatt, the assistant superintendent of the division of support and accountability for the state education department. 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 partnered with the National Guard to create an alternative school for students at high risk of dropping out.

“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,” Blatt said.

Monitoring Progress

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, in part because of reporting and oversight problems in some states and districts.

For example, Alabama was forced to change its graduation reporting after a federal Education Department audit found it was including credits for courses in its “essential skills pathway"—often used for students with disabilities that did not meet minimum standards for a regular high school diploma. After showing the greatest gains of any state since 2010-11, 15 percentage points, Alabama was one of the states that lost the most ground since 2014-15, more than 2 percentage points.

“One of the principal duties is to accurately and responsibly report what is going on in schools and systems,” said Tony Thacker, Alabama’s assistant state superintendent of education, who came in after the audit. “We have to develop a partnership with the systems to make sure that happens.”

The state still allows students to take its essential skills courses to get an Alabama diploma, but does not include those diplomas in the graduation rate it reports to the federal government and also has been training district staff and counselors to encourage students to take standard courses instead.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.