High school graduation rates have received a lot of news coverage—and mixed reactions—in the past few months.
President Barack Obama and 19 governors hailed increasing graduation rates in their annual addresses. At the same time, leading journalists and policy wonks have raised questions about those gains and the value of a high school diploma.
How can we make sense of this optimism and skepticism? Let’s take it one step at a time.
First, there is no denying the progress in graduation rates. Just 10 years ago, the nation’s on-time high school graduation rate was hovering around 70 percent, where it had been stuck for decades. Today, the graduation rate is 82.3 percent, the highest in history. And, significantly, we’ve seen the greatest increases among students of color and students from low-income families.
As a result, over the past 12 years, there have been about 2 million additional on-time high school graduates, according to researchers at America’s Promise Alliance, of which I am the CEO. That’s great news for those young people, their families, and their communities.
It is also a success story for the nation. At a time when political discord is high and stalemate persists on Capitol Hill, the increase in high school graduation rates offers a happier narrative. This is a bipartisan success story that spans a Republican and a Democratic presidential administration and owes a great deal to former U.S. Secretaries of Education Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan.
Spellings and Duncan shared a passion and determination to improve graduation rates. Both sought better outcomes for all students, created accountability systems, and devoted resources to creating the conditions that helped more young people succeed in school.
This is also a success story written at kitchen tables, in schools and communities where students, families, educators, and leaders of nonprofit organizations, churches, and businesses did the hard work to produce better results.
There is no magic to this work. The progress that’s been made is a testament to the fact that so many people subscribed to a big goal, changed their expectations and behaviors, and stuck with it over time. Those who are skeptical should be careful not to disparage the efforts of people who took this challenge seriously and worked hard to make it happen.
Still, this is hardly a high-five moment. More than half a million young people left high school without graduating in 2014, this year’s annual “Building a Grad Nation Report” found. And sobering graduation gaps for certain student groups persist.
Nationally, 74.6 percent of low-income students graduated on time in 2014, compared with 89 percent of non-low-income students—a gap of 14.4 percentage points. The gap for students with disabilities is more than 21 percentage points. It’s 14.7 percentage points for African-American students and 10.9 percentage points for Latino students, compared with their white peers.
But gaps are not the only trouble spot. There are still roughly 2,400 schools (with 100 or more students) that fail to achieve even a 67 percent graduation rate. Across the nation, these low-graduation-rate high schools enroll 1.23 million students.
A high school diploma doesn't guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost-certain failure."
New research in the same report also shows that a disproportionate number of the low-graduation-rate schools with 100 or more students are alternative, charter, or virtual schools. Traditional public high schools account for 41 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools and are where a majority of the students who do not graduate on time can be found.
Although alternative, charter, and virtual schools collectively make up 14 percent of high schools and enroll 8 percent of high school students, they make up 52 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools nationwide and produce 20 percent of the students who don’t graduate.
As the national high school graduation rate continues to rise, leading media and research outlets—including The New York Times, NPR, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—have raised serious questions. Are some districts lowering the bar or cooking the books to increase graduation rates? What does it mean when states discontinue or change high school exit exams? Should diplomas certify that graduates are college-ready?
Overall, the evidence shows that, in most places, high school graduation rates and more-rigorous standards are rising together. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ High School Transcript Study show that the trends are moving in the right direction: In 2009, a greater percentage of high school graduates completed a curriculum that was more challenging than it was in 1990 or 2005.
Since 2009, the number of students taking the ACT and the SAT is up. If standards were lowered, one would expect scores to decrease, but they’ve stayed basically flat. The number of students taking Advanced Placement tests is also way up, as is the number of students passing at least one of them.
Recently released NAEP scores show that reading scores have stagnated, while math scores have dropped slightly. At a time of rising graduation rates, this seeming disconnect between attainment (graduation) and achievement (NAEP scores) begs for closer analysis.
Documented examples of gaming the system are comparatively rare and don’t involve enough students to have a major impact on graduation rates. For example, after admitting that dropouts had been misclassified as transfers, Chicago school officials lowered the official graduation rate for 2014 from 69.4 percent to 66.3 percent. That’s still in the same (too low) ballpark, but it is an increase over previous years.
While some see the elimination of exit exams as an indication of lower standards, Stanford University research published in 2009 (by what is now the Center for Education Policy Analysis) shows that in some states, like California, exit exams have had a negative impact on graduation rates without improving student achievement.
And several studies make the case that grade point average is a better predictor of success in college than standardized tests anyway.
Still, vigilance is warranted. The real goal is not just to graduate more young people, but to keep more young people on the path to success in adulthood. Giving false diplomas or passing students who aren’t ready helps no one.
That’s why those of us working to increase graduation rates are equally forceful in insisting that we must continue to raise the bar and the value of a diploma.
The challenge of raising graduation rates and graduation standards doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Districts that are making progress are doing some combination of smart things, like using data to make decisions, working to increase teacher quality, raising expectations for all students, paying attention to early warning signs, adding more caring adults into the lives of young people living in challenging circumstances, fighting chronic absenteeism, and eliminating disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact students of color.
In today’s economy, a high school diploma doesn’t guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost-certain failure. It is our responsibility to prevent schools from foreclosing their students’ futures.
We’ve demonstrated that progress is possible, and now we must redouble our efforts to help millions more young people get and stay on track to adult success.