The Pomp and Circumstance of Graduation Rates

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 22, 2016

There’s good news, and there’s bad news.

The good news is more students are receiving a high school diploma than ever before in American history. In the 2013-2014 school year (the most recent year for which data is available) the high school graduation rate hit a record high — 82%! And not only have graduation rates rates increased overall, but graduation gaps have shrunk as well. Between 2011 and 2014, the black-white graduation gap shrank from 17% to 14.8%, and the Hispanic-white graduation gap shrank from 13% to 11%. These results are extraordinary — so much so that when they were released in October, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan celebrated by boldly declaring, “America’s students have achieved another record milestone…as a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family.”

…But there is also bad news.

Despite what they're wearing, not all of these students may be ready for college or a career. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Despite what they’re wearing, not all of these students may be ready for college or a career. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The bad news is those numbers might just be grand illusions – inflated by school officials’ gaming behaviors and the dilution of high school graduation requirements. Because schools and districts are held accountable for their graduation rates, gaming has become increasingly common. Some districts, like Chicago, have been accused of transferring at-risk students in their senior year so they don’t count against the graduation rate if they fail to complete their studies. In Texas, schools can classify a large number of their dropouts as having left the country or entered homeschooling without providing much evidence. And even when districts aren’t misclassifying dropouts, the proliferation of “credit recovery programs,” which allow students to earn high school credit for classes they originally failed or did not complete, has inflated graduation rates. Many of these credit recovery programs are run by for-profit companies like K12 or National High School, and there are few standards or regulations in place to ensure that students are actually learning something in those courses. In some cases, students can earn a semester’s worth of high school credit in just a couple weeks, and as a result, countless students have received diplomas they probably did not deserve.

Alternate Pathways to a Diploma

Another way states and districts can inflate their graduation rates is by creating alternate pathways to getting a diploma. These pathways, while praised for providing students with options to obtain a diploma that fits their interests and life circumstances, can produce wide variation student preparedness. Some pathways ensure that students are prepared for college or a career, while some do not.

Recently, researchers at Achieve attempted to go behind the graduation numbers and learn just how many high school graduates are actually completing college- and career-readiness (CCR) standards on the way to graduation.[1] The researchers compiled all high school diploma options available across the fifty states and Washington D.C. – 93 in all. They then scrutinized the curricular requirements for each of the 93 diplomas to determine if they met CCR standards.

The findings were disappointing. Achieve found that 20 states do not offer a single diploma that requires students to complete CCR requirements while only 4 states and Washington D.C. require students to complete a CCR curriculum in order to receive a diploma. Additionally, 26 states have multiple diploma options available to students, but in all of those states, at least one of the diploma options falls short of meeting CCR standards. Furthermore, only 10 of those 26 states publicly report the percentage of students earning each type of diploma, so there is no way to know how many students are actually graduating ready for college or a career.

Questions abound as to what should be done to ensure that all students graduate with a meaningful diploma — one that certifies they are actually college- and career-ready. Some suggest that the answer lies in greater transparency and outreach so that parents and students can learn about the value of different diplomas. Because there is little transparency with regard to how the alternative diploma pathways match up with different life and career goals, many worry that students and parents are being duped into believing that the different diploma types are equivalent when in reality they are not. In New Jersey, for example, the minimum standards diploma is not accepted by four-year colleges in the state. It’s essentially a junk credential, like being given a star-shaped sticker that says “Sheriff of Bayonne”…or a diploma from Trump University.

A More Serious Concern

Perhaps a more serious concern, though, has to do with the perverse incentives inherent in holding schools and districts accountable for graduation rates. As long as schools and districts are rated and funded on the basis of their graduation rates, there will always be pressure to fudge the numbers or water down the requirements. This inflationary behavior not only undermines the value of the diploma itself, but severely reduces its usefulness for potential employers and colleges looking to hire workers or admit graduates. In the past, a high school diploma certified a certain level of knowledge and a certain set of character traits that appealed to companies and colleges. As the high school diploma becomes easier to obtain, though, it loses its usefulness as an information shortcut, and employers and colleges have to look at alternative criteria – like AP course completion or extracurricular activities. When the day finally comes that we achieve a 100% graduation rate, the high school diploma will be virtually worthless, and high school graduates, if they want to differentiate themselves, will have to do so by attending college and shouldering tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.

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[1] Achieve defined college- and career-ready as having completed three years of mathematics (through Algebra II or some other comparable course) and four years of grade-level English/Language Arts.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.