College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Graduation Rate Hits New All-Time High, With Gains in All Student Groups

By Catherine Gewertz — December 04, 2017 5 min read
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UPDATED The national high school graduation rate has risen to a new all-time high: 84 percent, the fifth straight year of increases, according to data published by the federal government today.

The graduation rate for the high school class of 2015-16 is nearly a whole point higher than the one for the previous year’s class, which was 83.2 percent, according to the new data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The rate measures the proportion of each freshman class that earns a diploma four years later.

All groups of students showed improvements, a notable feat. The graduation rates for black students and for students who are learning English each rose 1.8 percentage points in one year. The rates for low-income students and Hispanic students each rose 1.5 points since the previous year. Students with disabilities saw a gain of nearly a full percentage point.

“This shows we are still heading in the right direction,” said Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which works on high school policy issues. “You can argue that the pace of improvement is slower than we’d like it to be, but there are more graduates this year than last. That’s a good thing.”

The fact that all subgroups of students showed gains is “super important,” Lovell said. “We don’t want to increase the national grad rate and leave behind kids who are struggling to be served.”

Despite the gains, however, there is still cause for concern. Some groups of students are still graduating at far better rates than their peers; there is a gap of more than 14 percentage points between Asian and African-American students, for instance. Low-income students lag behind their overall class by more than six points.

High school students show that they have a long way to go to be ready to succeed in college, too. Every year, large proportions of students fall below the college-readiness benchmark scores on the SAT and ACT. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as the “nation’s report card,” has shown little progress for high school students.

“Just because students are graduating from high school doesn’t mean they’re ready for college,” Lovell said. “So our celebration must be muted. We are clearly doing something right when it comes to getting kids across the line, but we’re not quite there when it comes to ensuring students are ready for the next step.”

What Does a Diploma Mean?

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who has focused on high school graduation and early signs of dropout risk, said that the new rates show real progress for “the groups that need progress the most"—low-income and minority students, students with disabilities and those learning English. He called the graduation-rate improvements “evidence that people are taking this issue seriously, learning what works, and trying to do a good work.”

But he said it’s important that educators and policymakers keep their eye on a key issue: the rigor of the work students are asked to do for their diplomas.

“We can devalue anything if we give it away,” Balfanz said. “We need to be sure these kids are earning honest diplomas.”

John Bridgeland, the chief executive officer at Civic Enterprises, which works with several other groups to monitor and report on the high school graduation rate in its annual “Building a Grad Nation” report, said the new high point is a result of “a sustained and aggressive focus” on the issue in the last decade. Federal requirements that schools report graduation rates by student subgroup helped “shine a spotlight” on work that needed to be done, and lead schools to set goals for improvement, he said.

But good national or state graduation rates can also camouflage wide variations among schools. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a school is considered a “low graduation rate” school if it fails to graduate two-thirds of its students within four years. The distribution of those schools varies widely from state to state. In 2015, 12 percent of all U.S. high schools were low-graduation rate schools, according to GradNation.

How Real Are the Gains?

Skeptics have raised questions about the national graduation rate, wondering whether a variety of short cuts by high schools might artificially inflate it. One practice some have criticized is credit-recovery—self-paced, often computer-based programs that let lagging students catch up quickly.

News media investigations have found that some schools improve their graduation numbers by not counting some low-performing students in their graduating classes. Others try to get rid of students who are at risk of dropping out by encouraging them to transfer to alternative schools or to be home-schooled. One recent investigation found that a school in Washington D.C. graduated half of its students last year even though they had missed three months of school, too much to have earned diplomas.

The most recent “Building a Grad Nation” report took on the question of rate inflation, and concluded that it’s unlikely that the national graduation rate is inflated. But it did find evidence that shortcuts could have pushed the numbers up in six unnamed states.

UPDATED Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which studies academic standards and accountability, said that the improvements in student achievement that began to emerge a dozen years ago, with the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, appear to be affecting graduation rates now.

“There is a plausible case to be made that the education system is doing a better job for more of these kids, especially for disadvantaged subgroups,” he said.

But there is “reason to be nervous about the rapid progress” in the graduation rate, since requirements for diplomas can be “squishy” and some high schools decide to make themselves look good by lowering standards, Petrilli said.

“At a time when districts and schools are held accountable for raising graduation rates, they have a strong motive to make those standards lower,” he said.

Lovell, of the Alliance for Excellent Education, disagreed that accountability is responsible for schools “fudging” their results.

“We should always keep our eye on unintended consequences,” he said, “but blaming accountability is like blaming the speed limit for a traffic ticket. The purpose of accountability is to identify where we need to be making improvements. Schools shouldn’t be taking shortcuts.”

The Education Week Research Center contributed to this report.

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