College & Workforce Readiness

Signs Point to Rise in High School Graduation Rates

By Alyson Klein — October 27, 2015 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is stepping down sometime in December, but he had a piece of good news to announce last week on his way out the door: High school graduation rates, which most recently stood at 81 percent nationally, appear to be on track to rise for the third year in a row.

The Department of Education won’t know for sure that national graduation rates ticked up again until early next year. But preliminary state-by-state data for the 2013-14 school year are encouraging. Thirty-six states saw increases in graduation rates from the 2012-13 to the 2013-14 school years. Only five states and the District of Columbia saw dips, and eight didn’t see a change. (The department doesn’t have data for Idaho.)

Closing Gaps

What’s more, traditionally disadvantaged groups of students, including English-language learners, appear to be closing the graduation gaps with their peers. Twenty-eight states saw the gap between black and white students close between those years and, separately, 32 states saw it close between Hispanic and white students.

“It looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction,” Duncan said at a roundtable for reporters Oct. 19. He was joined by John B. King Jr., who has been tapped to replace him as acting secretary after he steps down, and Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary, who oversees higher education policy at the Education Department.

As he has in the past, Duncan cited the graduation-rate gains as a reason that Congress needs to put a priority on accountability in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is still pending on Capitol Hill.

For his part, Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said that policymakers should be careful in linking an increase in graduation rates to any particular initiatives. There just isn’t enough information yet about the underlying reasons for the increase, in his view.

“I think the increase in graduation rates is promising, and I think we should withhold judgment about what’s causing it and what its long-term impacts are,” he said.

ESEA Prospects

In a wide-ranging discussion, Duncan declined to say just how likely it would be that an ESEA rewrite makes it over the finish line this year. Congressional aides to all four of the key lawmakers responsible for writing the bill—Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Bobby Scott, D-Va.—are said to be burning the midnight oil in the hopes of having legislation ready to go by the time Rep. John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House, resigns, which could be as early as the end of this month.

If they are able to complete their work, the leadership turnover in the House could actually be a boon to the ESEA’s prospects, Duncan said.

The Obama administration’s major priorities for the bill haven’t changed in the past year: It wants an emphasis on low-performing schools, a new preschool program, and language encouraging states to cap the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests, plus stronger language on accountability.

Duncan’s Legacy

As Duncan prepares to leave his post, critics reflecting on his legacy have noted that he may have pushed through too much change way too fast. The biggest misstep, experts say, was asking states to tackle new teacher evaluations at the same time they were putting in place new standards and tests under waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.

But Duncan said that he mostly regretted not moving more quickly on various policy initiatives, especially expanding early-childhood education. But he did admit that the shift to new standards, tests, and evaluations in the last few years has been a big load for states to handle.

“That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time,” he said.

Transition Time

King said he’s excited to pick up the ball for the administration, including when it comes to expanding early-childhood education and closing the achievement gap.

“It’s not about different,” King said. “It’s about building on the work. We’ve made a lot of progress. We still have too large an achievement gap for students of color and low-income students.” He also listed expanding access to early learning as one area he wants to get right to in January when he takes the reins from Duncan.

Duncan, though, put his finger on one potential difference: While Duncan’s background as the superintendent of an urban district instilled in him a passion for helping traditionally disadvantaged students, King actually was one of those children.

King, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican, lost his parents while he was still in grade school.

“That wasn’t my background,” Duncan said. “I was lucky to have two educated parents. ... John can look at kids who aren’t living with mom and aren’t living with dad” and identify with them. “There’s a power in that, that can be helpful. ... That’s a set of experiences I simply didn’t have.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as Signs Point to Increase in High School Graduation Rates

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