College & Workforce Readiness

Rising Graduation Rates: Trend or Blip?

By Holly Kurtz — February 24, 2015 6 min read
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Unlike heart rate or height, high school graduation rates are deceptively difficult to measure, with different methods producing contrasting and sometimes contradictory results.

But even with these various approaches, the latest signs emerging from the U.S. Department of Education appear to point in a single direction: Graduation rates are on the rise.

“At first glance, what the latest data tells us is that it’s not a speed bump; it looks more like a speed table,” said Sherman Dorn, an education professor at Arizona State University’s Phoenix and Tempe campuses. “Whether or not it’s actually more persistent increases, we’ll have to wait a couple years [to see].”

Mr. Dorn was referring to the recent release by the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, of a table indicating that the nation’s on-time graduation rate reached 81 percent for the class of 2013, breaking a record at least two years in a row. The table was posted on the statistics agency’s website in January and publicized by the Education Department earlier this month. It’s based on a methodology called the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, or ACGR, which tabulates the percentage of first-time high school students who earn regular diplomas within four years, accounting for any transfers or deaths that occur along the way. Schools have been required to use this method since 2008. However, implementation took time. (Idaho’s data are still unavailable.) So the Education Department’s current ACGR data only date to 2010-11, when the national graduation rate was 79 percent.

Class of 2013: Rates by State

Under the U.S. Department of Education’s new methodology for measuring on-time high school graduation rates, most states saw increases from the class of 2012 to the class of 2013, both of which were record-breaking years. But rates vary widely, from a low of 62 percent in the District of Columbia to 90 percent in Iowa.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

The NCES has not yet provided subgroup breakdowns for the ACGR for the class of 2013. But the most recent available ACGR demographic data suggest that, while low-income, special education, limited-English-proficient, and black, Hispanic, and Native American students continue to graduate at rates well below the average, all of these subgroups improved between 2010-11 and 2011-2012, as did Asians and whites, who have long graduated at above-average rates.

Other Ways, Same Results

Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggested that the growth in graduation rates has gone on much longer than that, with increases dating to the turn of the century and accelerating around 2008.

For these longer-term estimates, he used an older method called the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, or AFGR, which does not account for the students who transfer in and out during the high school years. According to the AFGR, the nation’s on-time graduation rate rose 9 percentage points between 2001 and 2012, from 72 percent to 81 percent.

On-time graduation rates have also risen according to a method called the Cumulative Promotion Index or CPI, which the Education Week Research Center created and reported in annual Diplomas Count reports.

The CPI method uses NCES data to capture the four key steps a student must take in order to graduate: three grade-to-grade promotions (9 to 10, 10 to 11, and 11 to 12), and ultimately earning a regular diploma (grade 12 to graduation). Each of these components corresponds to a grade-promotion ratio. Multiplying these four grade-specific promotion ratios together produces the graduation rate.

Last calculated for the class of 2010, the CPI was 74.7 percent, up 8 percentage points since 2000.

Asked to explain the increases in the most commonly referenced graduation rates, Mr. Balfanz pointed to policy.

“Grad rates have gotten better because states and districts realized [dropping out] was a problem and some more than others started working on the problem,” he wrote in an email, “and then the 2008 U.S. Department of Education grad rate regulations, which asked all states to set more ambitious grad-rate goals, really brought this to the attention of even more principals as something they should pay attention to.”

One piece of evidence that might support this state-level policy explanation is that results still vary widely by jurisdiction. In 2013, states’ ACGR graduation rates ranged from 62 percent in the District of Columbia to 90 percent in Iowa. In the past two years, Nevada’s rate has increased by 9 percentage points; Wyoming and Arizona have seen declines of 3 percentage points; and the nation as a whole has gained 2 percentage points.

Historical Perspective

Long-term trends, many of them economic, may also play a role, said Mr. Dorn, who specializes in educational history.

“The fact that teenagers in the Great Recession were really unlikely to get jobs or to keep jobs without a high school diploma may have kept some teenagers in school longer, so that might be one reason why high school graduation went up,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why graduation went from a minority to a majority experience in the early 20th century. It became harder and harder for teenagers to get jobs both before and during the Great Depression.”

And then, there is good, old-fashioned teaching and learning. “Schools may be doing better at teaching kids,” Mr. Dorn said. “Fora variety of reasons, whether you want to call it improved teaching, education reform, whatever else—the combination of things that go on inside classrooms and schools—something about that may have been pushing graduation up.”

At first glance, the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP) long-term trend assessment does not seem to support this theory. Reading and mathematics scores for 17-year-olds have been flat since 2008. However, these scores might also reflect the way in which rising graduation rates can change the makeup of the student body, according to Russell Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the director of the California Dropout Research Project.

“We’re talking about kids who are at the margin, who maybe five years ago would have dropped out and didn’t so they’re kind of barely passing,” Mr. Rumberger said.

In other words, higher graduation rates could be leading to higher percentages of low-performing students. Yet, rather than declining in the face of these added challenges, high school NAEP scores have remained flat.

Mr. Rumberger, however, suggested that students’ grades are better indicators of high school performance than test scores or graduation rates. Nationwide, the average high school grade point average was 3.0 for the class of 2009, about the same as for the class of 2005, even though the more recent graduates earned more credits and took a higher percentage of rigorous courses. Mr. Rumberger noted, however, that large proportions of students continue to graduate with GPAs below 2.5. Students with grades this low are more likely to struggle after graduation.

Room to Manipulate

High school grades can be just as tough to make sense of as graduation rates. Not only do they vary widely depending on the course, the curriculum, and the instructor, but they can be open to manipulation that in turn affects graduation rates. For example, in recent years accusations of dubious credit-recovery schemes have arisen in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and other areas of the nation. Mr. Rumberger worries that these and other similar practices could become more prevalent due to increased pressure to boost graduation rates.

He described a recent encounter with an educator whose principal had been changing students’ grades from Fs to Ds so that they could pass and get their diplomas.

“I’m not saying it happens very often but it does lend itself to manipulation,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Different Measures Show Graduation Rates on the Rise


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