College & Workforce Readiness

Is the High School Graduation Rate Inflated? No, Study Says

By Catherine Gewertz — May 03, 2017 6 min read
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Watered-down graduation requirements, mistaken calculations, and push-outs of unsuccessful students may have falsely boosted high school graduation rates in a few states, but are not widespread enough to have inflated the national graduation rate, which is at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, according to a study released Wednesday.

The eighth edition of the annual “Building A Grad Nation” report took on the skepticism that surrounded President Barack Obama’s October announcement of the national graduation-rate milestone.

The report also includes detailed breakdowns of 2014-15 high school graduation rates, by state and student subgroup, along with a plea for states to pay better attention to low-income and minority students, students with disabilities, and students learning English, since larger shares of those groups tend not to earn their diplomas in four years.

Statistics in the report capture the persistent disparities in graduation rates that lie just beneath the all-time, overall high of 83 percent. Here are the national 2014-15 four-year graduation rates by subgroup:

A unique feature of this year’s report is its attempt to address doubts about the validity of the country’s high graduation rate. Even though states are now required to use the same method to calculate graduation rates—the “adjusted cohort graduation rate,” which tracks the percentage of 9th graders who earn diplomas four years later—states have wiggle room that can affect their calculations.

For instance: How do they count students who become home-schoolers toward the end of high school? How do they count diplomas from alternative schools that also confer GEDs? If states don’t count some students (most likely the ones who are mostly likely to drop out), researchers would expect to see more shrinkage in the size of each class than could be explained by enrollment declines.

Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, which produce the “Grad Nation” report along with the Alliance for Excellent Education and the America’s Promise Alliance, examined cohort data and, in most states, didn’t find evidence of such disproportionate shrinkage. But it did find that pattern in six states. It didn’t name the states. It only noted that “while inappropriately removing students from cohorts may be a cause of inflated graduation in some individual school districts, it is likely not an issue for the national trend of rising graduation rates.”

Skepticism About Graduation Rates

Another source of skepticism about the graduation rate stems from schools’ increasing use of credit-recovery programs, which typically use computer-based, self-paced programs to help students complete work they need for their diplomas.

Other doubts center on the way some schools get students who could be dropout risks off their books: They persuade those students to home-school, or shunt them into alternative schools. (Read Pro Publica’s great investigation into this.) The “Grad Nation” report said that “fears” of push-outs to alternative schools are “legitimate,” but are more likely to affect school- or district-level graduation rates than state or national numbers. In most cases, the study said, state rates count the transferred students in their new schools.

Convincing low-performing students to home-school, however, can indeed inflate states’ graduation rates, the report said, because it means students are removed from their class cohort, and not counted in the graduation rate. The same goes for a practice that’s been uncovered in some alternative schools: getting likely-to-fail students off their books by assigning them a code that suggests that they’ve enrolled in adult education.

Right now, the home schooling and alternative school sectors aren’t a big enough slice of the national landscape to affect the U.S. graduation rate, the report said, but practices designed to shift low-performing students into those sectors warrant “careful monitoring.”

One slice of the criticism of the national graduation rate has come from those who claim that it’s gotten easier to earn diplomas. They point out that states have created multiple types of diplomas, some of which carry less-rigorous requirements. The persistently flat line of high school students’ performance on NAEP has led others to question the legitimacy of the high school diploma.

The “Grad Nation” researchers concluded that offering multiple kinds of diplomas doesn’t, by itself, raise questions about the graduation rate. It can support students’ blending college-prep classes with career-and-technical education courses, a mixture that has been shown to boost college- and career-readiness.

If states were lowering standards for diplomas, the report said, there would likely be declines in scores on tests such as the ACT and the SAT, and Advanced Placement exams. More students are taking and passing AP exams, the study said, and scores on college-entrance exams have held steady or risen slightly even as the pool of test-takers expands.

States’ Graduation Challenges Vary

Persistent gaps in graduation rates persist, as reported last fall when President Obama unveiled the 2014-15 numbers. Among Asian and white students, graduation rates are 90 percent and 88 percent, respectively. But they’re only 78 percent for Hispanic students and 75 percent for African-American students. For English-learners and students with disabilities, the graduation rate is 65 percent.

Only 76 percent of low-income students graduate in four years. In 20 states, according to the “Grad Nation” report, less than three-quarters of low-income students complete high school in four years.

States vary significantly, however, in the particular profile of their graduation-rate challenges. In some states, the biggest group that needs grad-rate improvement is low-income students. In others, it might be a racial minority group, English-learners, or students with disabilities.

High schools that enroll 100 or more students and graduate fewer than two-thirds in four years are considered low-graduation-rate schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act and must get special support. In 2015, there were 2,249 high schools—12 percent of all high schools—that fit that definition, the report says. Six in 10 of the students in those schools are low-income. Two-thirds are nonwhite.

Low-graduation-rate schools are not equally distributed across the states. Among the 10 states with the biggest shares of low-grad-rate schools, New Mexico tops the list, with 44 percent.

This year’s report examines, once again, the particularly low graduation rates in certain types of schools. It raises a particular flag about virtual schools. Charter virtual schools account for less than 1 percent of all schools, but 9.2 percent of schools with low graduation rates. (See Education Week‘s investigation of cyber charters, “Rewarding Failure.”) Virtual schools that are district-operated are an even smaller slice of the pie: .2 percent, and yet they account for 2.6 percent of schools with low graduation rates.

Alternative schools, too, come in for a big cautionary flag in the “Grad Nation” report. They make up 6 percent of all high schools nationally, but 30 percent of schools with low graduation rates. The fact that they serve large populations of at-risk students is particular cause for concern.

For more stories about the high school graduation rate, see:

States Get Leeway On Naming ‘Dropout Factories’

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

Illustration: Getty Images

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