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College & Workforce Readiness

Record U.S. Graduation Rate Not Seen as Inflated

By Catherine Gewertz — May 09, 2017 4 min read

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 new study.

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

Statistics in the report capture the persistent disparities in graduation rates that lie just beneath the record overall high of 83 percent. The report urges state policymakers 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.

Breaking Down the Numbers

The nation’s 83.2 percent graduation rate masks some differences among subgroups of students. For example, African-Americans, who comprise 15.9 percent of the overall school population, had a 74.6 percent graduation rate. The rate topped 90 percent, though, for Asian/Pacific Islander students, a much smaller slice of enrollment.

30 gradnation c1s

Source: Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University

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 states 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, researchers would expect to see more shrinkage in the size of each class than could be explained by enrollment declines.

Few Signs of Shrinkage

Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, which produce the “Grad Nation” report, examined cohort data and, in most states, didn’t find evidence of such disproportionate shrinkage. But it did find that pattern in six states, but didn’t name them. 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.”

Another source of skepticism about the U.S. 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. 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 says, but practices designed to shift low-performing students into those sectors warrant “careful monitoring.”

Is the Bar Lower?

Many have argued that the graduation rate has lost meaning because it’s gotten easier to graduate. They point out that some states offer new types of diplomas that carry less-rigorous requirements. 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 says, 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 says, and scores on college-entrance exams have held steady or risen slightly even as the pool of test-takers expands.

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, 2,249 high schools—12 percent of all high schools—fit that definition, the report says. Six in 10 of the students in those schools are low-income. Two-thirds are nonwhite.

This year’s report again raises a particular flag about graduation rates in certain types of schools.

Charter virtual schools account for less than 1 percent of all schools, but 9.2 percent of those with low graduation rates. District-operated virtual schools are an even smaller slice of the pie: .2 percent, and yet they account for 2.6 percent of the low-graduation-rate schools. Alternative schools, which serve large populations of at-risk students, comprise 6 percent of all high schools, but 30 percent of schools with low graduation rates.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Record U.S. Graduation Rate Not Seen as Inflated

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