Where We Stand and Where We’re Headed With U.S. Graduation Rates

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source:  Green & Write, April 11, 2017

The United States graduation rate is at an all-time high, with 82.3% of high school seniors graduating last year. At this point, it is not inconceivable that we could achieve a long-standing national goal of having a 90% graduation rate by 2020.

But despite the good news, a 2016 report by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University identifies reasons to be worried about the trajectory of the national graduation rate. One is the fact that graduation rate growth appears to have slowed in recent years. Last year, the graduation rate grew by just 0.9%, the first time since 2011 it grew by less than a full percentage point. Moreover, while the nation’s schools continue to make gains, they have not kept up a pace necessary to meet the 90% goal by 2020.

There is also much variation in graduation rates across states, districts and schools. Right now, only 27 states are on pace to achieve the 90% goal, and 21 states are not on pace, including some whose graduation rates have stalled in the 80s over the past several years. Persistent inequalities also exist between the graduation rates of minority students and non-minority students. Sixteen states have graduation rates below 70% for low-income and Black students, and 11 states have graduation rates below 70% for Hispanic students. In 35 states, less than 70% of English Language Learners graduated. These graduation gaps must be closed if we hope to achieve a 90% graduation rate overall.

There are also inequalities which appear correlated with the characteristics of particular high schools. Across the country as a whole, high-graduation-rate (HGR) high schools (those with graduation rates over 85%) outnumber by a four-to-one margin low-graduation-rate (LGR) high schools (those with graduation rates of less than 67%). Yet, urban schools appear to have a disproportionately high share of LGR schools and a disproportionately low share of HGR schools. While 24% of all high schools in the U.S. are located in urban areas, urban areas are home to more than half of all LGR schools. Moreover, alternative, charter, and virtual schools are disproportionately represented among LGR schools. 28% of LGR schools are alternative high schools, which cater to “at-risk” children, and 57% of all alternative high schools are LGR schools. Furthermore, 26% of LGR schools are charter schools and 12% of all non-graduates nationwide come from charter schools. Virtual schools are particular offenders as roughly 87% of virtual schools are LGR schools. Collectively, alternative, charter, and virtual schools make up only 14% of all high schools and enroll only 8% of all high school students, but they make up around 50% of LGR schools and produce 20% of nongraduates.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Given the wide variation in graduation rates, much targeted improvement needs to be done if we hope to achieve the 90% threshold by 2020. At the same time, the authors of the Civic Enterprises/Everyone Graduates Center report identified several obstacles that stand in the way of future graduation rate growth, including complacency, a failure to recognize that students who are not graduating often have the greatest needs, and the perception that poor graduation rates are someone else’s concern.

Another roadblock is the fact that states under the ESSA now have more flexibility when it comes to graduation rate accountability. The ESSA requires that LGR high schools be targeted for additional reforms and support, and the Obama Administration’s regulations for the law mandated that LGR high schools be publicly identified for intervention. According to the Obama Administration’s rules, graduation rates had to be calculated using the “four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate,” which identifies the proportion of each freshman class that graduates in four years. However, Congress voted last month to dissolve many of the Obama Administration’s accountability regulations, including the rules pertaining to the calculation of graduation rates. Given this new leeway, it is expected that states will begin calculating their graduation rates using more charitable methods, such as five- or six-year graduation rates, or measures that count students who earn a GED the same as regular high school graduates. This will allow many schools which would have been identified as LGR under the other measure to escape intervention.

The decision by Congress to overturn many of the Obama Administration’s ESSA regulations could therefore prove to be a setback in the quest to achieve a 90% graduation rate by 2020 if it leads states to game the system and essentially ignore large numbers of schools that need additional support. In the coming years, it will be incumbent upon policymakers to adopt an appropriate measure of high school graduation that identifies truly low-performing schools so that those schools can acquire the additional resources and support they need to perform.


Contact David: dwc@msu.edu

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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.