College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Graduation Rates Gain for Fourth Straight Year

By Alyson Klein — October 25, 2016 4 min read
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As high school graduation rates inched up for the fourth year in a row, to 83.2 percent, President Barack Obama said that efforts to improve education during his tenure have “started to pay off.”

But experts say it’s difficult to determine that federal education policy is responsible for the 1 percentage point uptick in graduation rates in the 2014-15 school year.

What’s more, they say, higher graduation rates don’t necessarily mean that more students are leaving high school ready for college or the workplace, especially since so many are unable to enroll in credit-bearing courses when they enter college.

Graduation rates have now risen for students overall by 4.2 percentage points from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year—the first year all states used the same method to calculate graduation rates for federal reporting purposes. And while big gaps still exist between black, Hispanic, and Native American students and their white and Asian peers, those gaps are slowly closing.

The rates for black students rose even faster than the average for all students over that same period, increasing by 7.6 percent, while graduation rates for Hispanic students grew by 6.8 percent. What’s more, the rates for English-language learners, students in special education, and disadvantaged students also climbed faster than those for students overall.

Rising Tide

Minority students from a range of subgroups outstripped their white peers in boosting their graduation rates over the past four years, new federal data show.


Source: U.S. Department of Education

Graduation rates increased in nearly every state in recent years. The most-significant increase between the 2010-11 and the 2014-15 school years appears to have been in Alabama, which saw a jump from 72 percent—below the national average—to 89.3 percent over that period. And all but two states, Arizona and Wyoming, saw increases in their graduation rates of at least 1 percentage point since 2010-11.

Alaska, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Nevada, Utah, and West Virginia had increases of more than 10 percentage points. Iowa, Texas, and Nebraska have consistently had some of the highest graduation rates nationally between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The data do not examine graduation requirements, which differ substantially from state to state.

Who Gets the Credit?

Obama appears to be using this graduation-rate announcement to take a education victory lap. The president gave a speech Oct. 17 at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District of Columbia about the impact of his education policies on students from early childhood onward.

“Some of the changes we made were hard, and some of them were controversial,” Obama said. “But the hard work we put in across the country has started to pay off.”

By way of example, he talked about the administration’s push to increase investments in early-childhood education. He cited the Race to the Top competitive-grant program, which he said inspired states to raise standards.

But experts caution that there’s no way to know for sure whether the Obama administration’s policies had an impact on graduation rates.

“A number of factors could be leading to this,” said Laura Hamilton, the associate director of RAND Education, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif. “I do think it’s good news. It’s definitely a trend we want to see.”

But she added, “We need more evidence before we can attribute it to any particular administration or to state or federal dollars.”

In fact, she said, it’s just as possible that the graduation increase could be a byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was replaced late last year with the Every Students Succeeds Act. What’s more, it’s not clear if higher graduation rates necessarily mean that more students are leaving high school prepared for college, Hamilton said.

“Lots of kids graduate and go on to postsecondary education and need a lot of remedial coursework,” she added.

Preparation Level

A high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean that a student is prepared for postsecondary work, agreed Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization in Washington that helps states set expectations for what students need to know and be able to do to be prepared for postsecondary success. Roughly a third of first-year college students take remedial courses that teach them skills they should have learned in high school, he said. They are half as likely to earn a degree as their better-prepared peers are.

And so-called “credit recovery” courses—in which students who have fallen behind can earn credit on a compressed time frame by demonstrating their knowledge—appear to have gained in popularity in recent years, Cohen said. But it’s tough to get a handle on what’s happening in them, he said.

Even though the news about graduation rates has been positive, the Obama administration’s tenure also saw the first drop in 4th and 8th reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” in more than two decades.

In a call with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. acknowledged that there may be variation in what a high school diploma means from one place to another. But he said a diploma can open doors for students.

And King disputed the contention that the administration is taking credit for graduation rate progress. The credit, he said, goes to teachers, students, and local and state leaders.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as U.S. Graduation Rates Gain for Fourth Year

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