2018 Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates
For much of the 20th century, high school graduation was seen as the finish line between childhood and adulthood and a distinct marker of success in education. Completing the K-12 experience and earning a high school diploma meant that a young person was ready to go out into the workforce and earn a livable wage or, in the case of the select few, enroll in college.
The growth of the knowledge economy in the 21st century redefined a high school diploma as a necessary passport to the next level of training and education. Students who graduate from high school are no longer guaranteed the high wage industrial and manufacturing jobs that had been available to many in the past. Nonetheless, as both K-12 and higher education wrestle with how best to prepare students for an ever-changing future, what is certain is that most young people now need more than a high school diploma to secure a more promising tomorrow.
Young people who do not graduate high school are less likely to be employed, earn less income, have worse health and lower life expectancy, are less likely to be civically engaged, and are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and require social services. Without some training beyond high school, securing a stable, well-paying job is very unlikely.
At each step along the continuum, we can identify students who are falling behind. From the start, Black and Hispanic children and those growing up in poverty, are more likely than their peers to be off track and those gaps remain well into adulthood. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to live in poverty than their white peers (36 percent of Black children and 30 percent of Hispanic children compared to 12 percent of white children), and for young people of color that also live in poverty, the likelihood of missing key indicators of educational progress is even greater.
This year, the Building a Grad Nation report continues to call out the disparities in high school graduation rates for specific student subgroups and for the low-performing schools many of them attend, which are disproportionately affected by poverty, structural inequities, and inequitable access to resources, supports, and opportunities.
Part I: High School Graduation Trends Across the Nation
The nation continues to see steady growth in high school graduation rates, but it remains off pace to reaching the 90 percent goal—a goal that would require graduating about 219,000 more young people on time than graduated in 2016 and nearly doubling the annual rate of gain in recent years through 2020.
The story behind graduation rate gains can largely be seen at the state level:
- In 2011, five states reported graduation rates below 70 percent. In 2016, no state had a graduation rate below 71 percent.
- In 2011, no state had achieved a 90 percent graduation rate, and only nine had a graduation rate above 85 percent. In 2016, two states reached the 90 percent goal, and 25 reported a graduation rate above 85 percent.
- Seventeen states—many with large populations of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students—have largely driven progress nationally since 2011 and helped narrow national racial and income graduation rate gaps.
- Several Midwestern and plains states that had graduation rates above the national average in 2011 have experienced below average rates of growth, as have nine other states that began with rates above 85 percent. These slowdowns should serve as a wake-up call to all states, even those within sight of 90 percent, that raising graduation rates will take a sustained, consistent effort.
Within the report, district-level patterns (of school districts with at least 1,300 students) are also examined to provide greater understanding of how widespread graduation rate improvement is within each state and which school districts are having the most impact on state rates.
Part II: Reaching a 90 Percent Graduation Rate for All Students
Where We Stand: Black and Hispanic Students
Black and Hispanic students continue to make graduation rate gains greater than the national average, but their overall graduation rates still fall below 80 percent. More states are increasing graduation rates for these students than ever before, but the gaps between them and white students still remain significant (11.9 percentage points between Black and white students and 9 percentage points between Hispanic and white students).
In five states—Wisconsin, Nevada, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio—the graduation rate gap between Black and white students is greater than 20 percentage points, and in two of those states—New York and Minnesota—the gap between Hispanic and white students is at least that large as well (20.8 and 21.9 percentage points, respectively). Together, Black and Hispanic students make up more than half of the nation’s four-year non-graduates, and both subgroups are greatly overrepresented in many states’ four-year non-graduates.
Where We Stand: Low-Income Students
Just under half of the country’s 2016 cohort (47.6 percent), but more than two-thirds of the nation’s non-graduates, were low income. This comes even as graduation rates for low-income students increased faster than the overall rate, yet still lingered at just 77.6 percent. The graduation gap between low-income and non-low-income students ranges from a high of 24 percentage points to a low of 2.8 percentage points.
While gaps between low-income and non-low-income students have decreased in the majority of states over the past 6 years, 16 states have actually seen the graduation rate gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers increase. Encouragingly, in almost 4 of every 5 states, the graduation rate for low-income students increased.
Where We Stand: Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities continue to graduate at rates well below their peers. In 2016, just 65.5 percent of students receiving special education services graduated in four years—21.1 percentage points behind general population students, and 26 states have graduation rate gaps between students with disabilities and general population students greater than the national average.
Where We Stand: English Learners
English Learners (ELs) make up a small but growing group of students, and their graduation rates continue to languish near the bottom of all student subgroups. A handful of states—New Mexico, California, Colorado, and Hawaii—had significant concentrations of ELs among their four-year non-graduates.
Where We Stand: Low-Performing High Schools
In 2016, there were 2,425 high schools meeting the ESSA definition for a low-graduation-rate high school (enrolling 100 or more students, graduation rate of 67 percent or less), up from 2,249 in 2015. These schools represent 13 percent of all high schools and enroll approximately 7 percent of high school students.
Low-graduation-rate high schools can primarily be found in urban and suburban areas, and within their student populations, Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are largely overrepresented. In four states—New Mexico, Alaska, Florida, and Arizona—one quarter or more of the state’s high schools graduate less than 67 percent of students.
Part III: Examining the Connection Between High School and Postsecondary
Postsecondary attainment is on the rise, yet the nation is off pace to reach its 60 percent postsecondary goal by 2025, and significant equity gaps remain:
- Since 2008, the share of Americans ages 25 to 64 that hold a credential beyond high school has increased 9 percentage points to a record high of 46.9 percent;
- The gap between white and Black Americans age 25-64 with at least an associate degree was 16.4 percentage points; and
- The gap between white and Hispanic 25- to 64-year-olds was 24.5 percentage points (The Lumina Foundation, A Stronger Nation Report 2018).
Looking at recent high school completers who immediately enrolled in college, however, presents a considerably different story on subgroup gaps. The gaps between white and Black 16-to-24-year-olds who immediately enrolled in college stands at 6.9 percentage points and is just 2.4 percentage points between white and Hispanic students (Census Bureau, 2016).
Black and Hispanic students’ experiences with postsecondary education may in part stem from a lack of opportunity at the high school level:
- Black and Hispanic students have less access to high-level math (e.g. Calculus and Algebra II) and science (Chemistry and Physics) courses than their peers (U.S. Department of Education, Civil Rights Data Collection); and
- Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in rigorous course programs, including in AP courses (College Board, 2018) and gifted and talented education (GATE) programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
High schools and postsecondary institutions, as well as leaders at the community, state, and federal levels, must work together to broaden what it means to be a Grad Nation
Continue to improve graduation rate data reporting and collection. The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) is now in its sixth year, and though it is still considered to be the “gold standard” of graduation rate metrics with individual student identifiers, there are still ways it can be improved to guarantee the best data is available.
Discrepancies in what is considered a “regular” diploma, how transfer students are taken into account, and how certain subgroups are identified within the cohort should be addressed. Having access to graduation rate data that can be disaggregated into more specific subgroups and gender would also provide greater insight into the students who do not graduate and what interventions might help.
Promote policies and practices that reduce harmful disparities. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are less likely to be on track to graduate on time and enroll in postsecondary education. Greater investments need to be made in these students and their schools starting in early education, and harmful, reactive disciplinary practices—particularly out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement referrals—should be replaced with proactive practices and policies that keep students in school, accept personal responsibility for their actions, and work to address their underlying issues.
States should also address funding inequities and ensure funds intended for targeted support and improvement are directed toward evidence-based programs and practices. The federal government should also continue to track racial, income, and ability disparities through the Office for Civil Rights and monitor state progress toward student subgroup graduation rate goals.
Align diplomas with college and career ready standards. State leaders should establish diploma requirements aligned with state college and university admissions criteria, and schools and districts should ensure more students, especially those that are at the greatest disadvantage, earn a college and career ready diploma. Making a well-aligned college and career ready diploma the default diploma option can help ensure more students are on track to graduate prepared for postsecondary or career pathways.
Support schools and districts with comprehensive support and improvement plans. Districts with identified low-performing high schools must develop support and improvement plans. These plans must include evidence-based strategies and be approved and monitored by the state. States, with the help of researchers, should curate lists of evidence-based strategies and programs to assist districts in the development of these plans and connect schools and districts to organizations and networks that can provide necessary and individualized technical assistance.
Avoid and eliminate practices that lower the bar for students. Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the use of credit recovery courses and alternative programs to move off-track students toward their diploma. While some of these courses and programs may be useful for a small subset of students who have mitigating circumstances, many of them fail to provide a rigorous education and prepare students for life beyond high school.
States, especially those with large numbers of alternative and virtual schools, need to examine the quality of these schools and determine whether they are helping young people or simply offering meaningless credentials. And where these programs are having success, researchers and education leaders should do more to learn what works in engaging and graduating students who often face some of the greatest challenges.
Create state specific high school graduation plans. States should develop “Path to 90 Percent On-Time High School Graduation for All Plans” that analyze which districts, schools, and students within their state will need additional supports and/or guidance on implementing customized evidence-based approaches to enable all students to graduate, on-time, prepared for postsecondary success.
Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. K-12 education leaders can ease the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers by creating alignment between high school and college entry requirements, helping students understand their postsecondary options and the application process, and providing greater access to early college, career academies, and CTE coursework pathways.
Postsecondary institutions should do more to support students, particularly first generation and low-income students by working with high schools to offer remediation courses prior to high school graduation; consider eliminating or reducing the weight of test score-based admission requirements; develop more structured and strategic advising and engagement opportunities for students during the summer gap and school year, particularly in the critical freshman year; and ensure students have access to tutoring and other academic support.
Employers can help strengthen the transition between education and the workplace by increasing engagement with schools by providing internships and job shadowing to ground learning in real experiences and creating a more innovative last semester of high school where students can have the opportunity to have more practical, hands-on experiences.
Federal policymakers can also contribute to creating stronger pathways between high school and postsecondary and careers by allowing high school students to use federal Pell Grants to pay for college courses taken in dual enrollment and early college programs.
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The 2018 Building a Grad Nation report is co-authored by Jennifer DePaoli, John Bridgeland, and Matthew Atwell of Civic Enterprises and Robert Balfanz at the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
AT&T, lead sponsor, has supported the Building a Grad Nation report series since its inception through AT&T Aspire, the company’s $400 million commitment since 2008 to graduate more students from high school ready for college and career. Lumina Foundation, which has been a leader in the field on postsecondary education, is a supporting sponsor.
The 5 Promises
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: