College & Workforce Readiness

There Are Now More High Schools With Low Graduation Rates. Why?

By Catherine Gewertz — June 05, 2018 5 min read
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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 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 right: in just one year, 176 additional schools qualified as graduation danger zones.

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 these are important to note as the country struggles to understand how well its high schools are serving students. That’s not as easy task, as cause for celebration and skepticism compete for our 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 a variety of games with their graduation-rate calculations.

Alternative Schools to Evade Graduation-Rate Accountability?

Part of that picture is a question about the extent to which high schools move their struggling students into alternative schools. They might do this 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 bring down their 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, in recognition of the added time that many struggling students need to finish high school. But the law requires them to assign less weight to five- and six-year rates than to their four-year rate.

UPDATED Using those longer timelines is the most appropriate way to evaluate how well alternative schools are doing with a very challenging student population, said Russell Rumberger, who focuses on graduation-rate issues as a professor emeritus of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

But even with that allowance, he said, policymakers should keep an eye on the rise in the numbers of alternative high schools.

“It means that districts are creating more of these options, and they’re generally viewed as not the best environment for kids,” Rumberger said. “They vary a lot in quality, and they account for a disproportionate number of dropouts.”

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 new report looks at schools with graduation rates above 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 it turns up some surprising results. Many schools considered to be high-performing are harboring large numbers of students who won’t earn diplomas in four years.

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

One of the drivers 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.

Where Are the Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools? It Might Surprise You

Research has shown that certain types of schools—charters, alternative, and virtual schools—tend to have lower graduation rates than traditional high schools. But the new 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 attend 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 will need to examine its own unique patterns of schools with low graduation rates and fashion its own solution.

That’s particularly important as the Every Student Succeed 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.”

Photo: Students from St. Joseph High School arrive for graduation ceremonies on June 4 in St. Joseph, Mich.
--Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.