College & Workforce Readiness

Number of High Schools With Low Graduation Rates Is Rising

By Catherine Gewertz — June 12, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Even as the nation’s high school graduation rate reaches an all-time high of 84 percent, a troubling phenomenon is taking shape: The number of schools with low graduation rates is actually growing.

The change is reported in the latest version of “Building a Grad Nation,” an annual report that tracks high school graduation. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of schools defined by federal law as having a low graduation rate—schools of 100 or more students where fewer than two-thirds earn diplomas in four years—rose from 2,249 to 2,425. That’s 176 more schools qualifying as graduation danger zones in one year.

Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, one of the report’s co-authors, said that most of the change is explained by a rise in the number of alternative schools. In 2016, the most recent year of data available, there were 878 alternative high schools with low graduation rates. Only two years earlier, in 2014, there were 677.

Shifts like those are important to note as the country struggles to understand how well its high schools are serving students. That’s not easy, as cause for celebration and skepticism compete for attention.

Federal data released in December show the highest graduation rate in history. But investigations and audits are stacking up that show schools, districts, or states playing various games with their graduation-rate calculations.

Evading Accountability?

Part of that picture is a question about the extent to which high schools move struggling students into alternative schools. They might do so with the best of intentions, believing that those students will be better served, Balfanz said. But they can also benefit by scrubbing their books of students who might drag down graduation rates.

“Part of the underlying story is that at some level, graduation-rate accountability has propelled the growth of alternative schools,” Balfanz said.

Sending struggling students to alternative schools creates a “hyperconcentration of need” that makes on-time graduation even more unlikely, Balfanz said.

Federal law allows states to factor five- and six-year graduation rates into their accountability systems, to recognize the added time that many struggling students need to finish. But the law requires states to assign less weight to five- and six-year rates than to their four-year rate.

The longer timelines are a better way to evaluate how alternative schools are doing with a challenging student population, said Russell Rumberger, who studies such issues as a professor emeritus of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Even so, he said, policymakers should keep an eye on the rise in the number of alternative high schools. “They vary a lot in quality, and they account for a disproportionate number of dropouts,” he said.

The growing role of alternative settings is only one piece of a changing landscape of high school completion. “Building a Grad Nation” also points to another shift worth watching: Good graduation rates can mask large numbers of students who aren’t graduating on time.

One analysis in the report looks at schools with graduation rates higher than the national average of 84 percent. It asks what proportion of students at those schools earn diplomas in four years instead or five or six and turns up some surprising results. Some schools considered high-performing are harboring large numbers of students who won’t earn diplomas in four years.

In 13 states, more than half the students who don’t graduate in four years are enrolled in schools with graduation rates of 84 percent or more, according to “Grad Nation.” In Iowa, 64 percent of the students who don’t graduate on time go to such schools. It’s 59 percent in Arkansas and 53 percent in Kentucky.

Demographic Shifts

One driver behind those numbers is demographic shifts in inner-ring suburbs that bring more low-income families into schools that aren’t prepared to support them, Balfanz said.

Research has shown that certain types of schools—charter, alternative, and virtual schools—tend to have lower graduation rates than traditional high schools. But this latest report shows surprising variations in that picture.

Looking at low-graduation-rate schools and students in three states offers an example of the variation:

• In Georgia, 28 percent of the students who don’t graduate in four years attend regular or vocational schools with low graduation rates. Three percent go to alternative schools, and none attends virtual schools.

• By contrast, in Florida, only 4 percent of the students who don’t finish on time attend regular or vocational schools. Thirty-one percent are in alternative schools, and 1 percent are in schools for special education students.

• Michigan’s distribution of students who don’t graduate on time is very different. Twenty-four percent of its students who don’t graduate in four years are in alternative schools, while 8 percent attend regular or vocational schools, and 6 percent are in virtual schools.

The message in the numbers, the report’s authors write, is that each state should examine its own patterns of schools with low graduation rates.

That’s especially important as the Every Student Succeeds Act shifts more responsibility for school improvement from the federal level to the states, said John Bridgeland, another “Grad Nation” co-author.

“States can’t just look at their overall graduation rates and leave it at that,” he said. “They have to embrace this challenge and dig deeper into their data to see what’s actually happening, school to school and district to district.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2018 edition of Education Week as More High Schools Found to Have Low Graduation Rates

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students
A unique collaboration between a Virginia school district and two television actors allows students to gain real-life filmmaking experience.
6 min read
Bethel High School films a production of Fear the Fog at Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023.
Students from Bethel High School in Hampton, Va., film "Fear the Fog"<i> </i>at Virginia's Fort Monroe on June 21, 2023. Students wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film through a partnership between their district, Hampton City Schools, and two television actors that's designed to give them applied, entertainment industry experience.
Courtesy of Hampton City Schools
College & Workforce Readiness A FAFSA Calculation Error Could Delay College Aid Applications—Again
It's the latest blunder to upend the "Better FAFSA," as it was branded by the Education Department.
2 min read
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, poses for a portrait in the Folsom Library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. A later-than-expected rollout of a revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid, is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions. Noyola said he hasn’t been able to submit his FAFSA because of an error in the parent portion of the application. “It’s disappointing and so stressful since all these issues are taking forever to be resolved,” said Noyola, who receives grants and work-study to fund his education.
Jesus Noyola, a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stands in the university's library on Feb. 13, 2024, in Troy, N.Y. He's one of thousands of existing and incoming college students affected by a problem-plagued rollout of the revised Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FASFA, that schools use to compute financial aid. A series of delays and errors is resulting in students and their parents putting off college decisions.
Hans Pennink/AP
College & Workforce Readiness How Well Are Schools Preparing Students? Advanced Academics and World Languages, in 4 Charts
New federal data show big gaps in students' access to the challenging coursework and foreign languages they need for college.
2 min read
Conceptual illustration of people and voice bubbles.
Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Learning Loss May Cost Students Billions in Future Earnings. How Districts Are Responding
The board that annually administers NAEP warns that recent research paints a "dire" picture of the future for America's children.
6 min read
Illustration concept of hands holding binoculars and looking through to see a graph and arrow with money in background.
Liz Yap/Education Week and iStock/Getty