College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. High School Grad Rate Reaches Another All-Time High. But What Does It Mean?

By Catherine Gewertz — January 24, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


The U.S. high school graduation rate has risen for yet another year, to a new all-time high of 84.6 percent. But even as some celebrated the steady gains in high school completion, others worried that the pace of improvement is slowing, and that the numbers tell a false story.

New figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics show that 84.6 percent of the students in the class of 2016-17 earned diplomas in four years. That’s a half-point better than in 2015-16, when the graduation rate was 84.1 percent.

Leaders of GradNation, a campaign to raise high school completion rates, rang an alarm bell as soon as the new data came out, warning that it’s the first time since 2011 that the graduation rate hasn’t shown year-to-year improvements of almost a full percentage point.

The half-point rise is “a sobering reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent in our efforts to place more young people on the path to high school graduation and postsecondary success,” Bob Balfanz, who works with GradNation and leads the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.

“Given that most jobs today and in the future require postsecondary education or training, a high school diploma is an essential first step to adult success after high school.”

‘Losing Momentum?’

“We are losing momentum and urgently need to rededicate ourselves to finish the job” of meeting the nation’s 2020 goal of having 90 percent of students finish high school in four years, John Bridgeland, the CEO of Civic Enterprises, part of the GradNation initiative, said in a statement.

Monika Kincheloe, a senior director at America’s Promise Alliance, a partner in the GradNation campaign, said that one theory for the slowdown in improvement is that students are disengaging from school because they’re getting too little support for learning social-emotional skills such as persistence, even as their schools have ratcheted up academic expectations in the “college and career-readiness” push of the last decade.

Questions persist, also, about what is fueling the steady rise in high school graduation rates. While many schools have been focusing energy on better supporting students so they can finish high school, studies and anecdotes suggest that some could have edged into dubious tactics—such as creating diploma mills with quick, online catch-up courses—in order to look good when annual accountability reports come out.

“We’ve been watching the rise of credit recovery and alternative pathways to graduation,” Kincheloe said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about these thousands of kids sitting at rows of computers, about the rigor of those programs.

“We’re aware of this gaming behavior [by schools and districts.] And they need to be brought into accountability” for the quality of those programs, she said.

Even as the pace of overall growth slowed in the graduation rate between 2016 and 2017, the new figures showed gains for most of the student groups who have historically struggled to finish school. And they showed one decrease: for English-learners.

Here are the highlights of the subgroup changes in the U.S. high school graduation rate from 2016 to 2017:

  • + 1.6 percentage points: Students with disabilities. 2017 graduation rate: 67.1 percent
  • + 1.4 points: African-American students. 2017 graduation rate: 77.8 percent
  • + .7 of a point: Latino students. 2017 graduation rate: 80 percent
  • + .7 of a point: Students from low-income families. 2017 graduation rate: 78.3 percent
  • + .5 of a point: American Indian/Alaska Native students: 2017 graduation rate: 72.4 percent
  • + .4 of a point: Asian-American students. 2017 gradution rate: 91.2 percent
  • + .3 of a point: White students. 2017 graduation rate: 88.6 percent.
  • - .4 of a point: English-learners. 2017 graduation rate: 66.4 percent

Kincheloe said the big graduation-rate gain among students with disabilities prompted an “eyebrow raise” among leaders of GradNation, and they “flagged it as something to look into.”

The explanation for those gains isn’t clear yet, she said, but she and her colleagues wonder whether it was fueled by states expanding the definition of “regular” diploma so that it included more students with disabilities. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to calculate their graduation rates using only “regular” diplomas awarded to “a preponderance” of students.

Kincheloe said she worries that graduation rates declined among English-learners because districts are overwhelmed by the influx of immigrant students. “We are hearing that schools aren’t sure what to do with those students, that teachers are creating pop-up classrooms for them,” she said.

See also:

New Federal Rule Could Force States to Lower Graduation Rates

Image: National Center for Education Statistics

Related Tags:

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

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion Can College-Going Be Less Risky Without Being 'Free'?
Rick Hess speaks with Peter Samuelson, president of Ardeo Education Solutions, about Ardeo's approach to make paying for college less risky.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion What Will It Take to Get High School Students Back on Track?
Three proven strategies can support high school graduation and postsecondary success—during and after the pandemic.
Robert Balfanz
5 min read
Conceptual illustration of students making choices based on guidance.
Viktoria Kurpas/iStock
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion An Economist Explains How to Make College Pay
Rick Hess speaks with Beth Akers about practical advice regarding how to choose a college, what to study, and how to pay for it.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says College Enrollment Dip Hits Students of Color the Hardest
The pandemic led to a precipitous decline in enrollment for two-year schools, while four-year colleges and universities held steady.
3 min read
Conceptual image of blocks moving forward, and one moving backward.