2017 Building a Grad Nation Report
Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates
This year signifies two key milestones in the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates. First, the release of the 2015 federal graduation rate data marks five years since states began reporting graduation rates with a common formula, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). Second, there are now just five years of federal data reporting between now and the culmination of the GradNation goal to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by the Class of 2020.
At 84.1 percent, the national graduation rate is at an all-time high. All told, 2.8 million more students have graduated from high school since 2001, resulting in significant benefits for young people, the economy, and the nation.
There are now roughly 1,000 large, low-graduation-rate high schools, and less than 900,000 students attending them—down from more than 2,000 such schools and 2.5 million students enrolled in them in 2002. Most notably, low-income students made up nearly half of the class of 2015.
The nation must double its pace of progress over the next five years to reach the 90 percent goal by 2020. For many states, progress has stagnated, often due to specific student subgroups that these states continue to leave behind. Low-income students, students with disabilities, Black and Hispanic/Latino students, and English Language Learners continue to graduate at lower rates than their peers.
To reach our GradNation goal—and our broader national goal of equal opportunity for all—we must focus our efforts on narrowing graduation gaps. Fortunately, there is much to learn from states that have raised graduation rates for Black, Hispanic/Latino, and low-income students and made progress towards narrowing their equity gaps.
Although the high school graduation rate continues to be a hope spot for the nation, those gains have slowed and the momentum of the past decade has been met with intense scrutiny over the legitimacy of these gains. A healthy skepticism is needed to ensure increasing graduation rates nationwide translate into more students leaving high school prepared for college and career success. This report presents the objective facts about progress to date, acknowledges the hard questions that have risen, provide answers where available, and highlights ongoing, legitimate concerns.
WHERE WE STAND: HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION IN 2015
In 2015, about half of states reported high school graduation rates of 85 percent or more and are on track to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. There are, however, a substantial number of states still graduating less than 80 percent of students in four years and several others with graduation rates in the lower 80s that have remained stagnant for years. The state-level data also continue to show concerning trends in many states for key student subgroups:
- Ten states reported graduation rates for Hispanic/Latino students below 70 percent and another 22 states had Hispanic/Latino graduation rates between 70 and 80 percent.
- The graduation rate for Black students was less than 70 percent in 12 states and between 70 and 80 percent in 25 other states.
- In 11 states, the graduation rate for low-income students was below 70 percent, and in 28 other states, between 70 and 80 percent of low-income students graduated on time.
- In 33 states, English language learners (ELLs) graduated at rates less than 70 percent, and in five of those states, less than 50 percent of ELLs graduated on time.
- Thirty-three states graduate less than 70 percent of their students with disabilities (SWDs), and in four of those states, less than 50 percent of SWDs graduated on time.
- In contrast, 33 states reported graduation rates for White students of 85 percent of more and 43 states graduated 85 percent or more of non-low-income-students.
DRIVER 1: LOW-INCOME STUDENTS
Nearly half of the country’s 2015 graduating cohort – 48.2 percent, a slight increase from 2014 – came from low-income families. Nationally, the gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers now stands at 13.7 percentage points, a slight decrease from last year.
Table 2. States With the Highest Proportion of Non-Graduates that are Low-Income
Percent of Low-Income Non-Graduates in the State
Percent of Low-Income Students Within the 2015 Cohort
The graduation rate gap between low-income and non-low-income students range from a high of 24.2 percentage points in South Dakota to a low of 4.5 percentage points in Indiana. In nearly half of all states, the gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers is 15 percentage points or greater, and in 18 additional states the gap is at least 10 points. Only nine states have a low-income/non-low-income gap less than 10 percentage points.
DRIVER 2: BLACK AND HISPANIC/LATINO STUDENTS
Black and Hispanic/Latino students made the greatest gains – 9 and 15 percentage points, respectively – in high school graduation rates between 2006 and 2012. These gains have continued in the ACGR era, with graduation rates for Black students increasing 7.6 percentage points and 6.8 percentage points for Hispanic/Latino students since 2011.
Table 5. States with the Highest Proportion of Non-Graduates who are Black
Percent of Non-Graduates in the State who are Black
Percent of Black Students Within the 2015 Cohort
Black / African-American ACGR
Across the nation, Black and Hispanic/Latino students comprised 38.5 percent of the 2015 cohort but made up 54 percent of the students who failed to graduate on time. Conversely, White students were 52.7 percent of 2015 cohort but just 38.9 percent of all non-graduates.
Table 6. States With the Highest Proportion of Non-Graduates who are Hispanic/Latino
Percent of Non-Graduates in the State who are Hispanic/Latino
Percent of Hispanic / Latino Students within the 2015 Cohort
Hispanic / Latino ACGR
DRIVER 3: STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Overall, 33 states reported high school graduation rates for special education students below 70 percent, and nearly half of those 33 had graduation rates for students with disabilities below 60 percent. Four states – South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada – graduated less than half of their special education students.
Table 7. States with the Highest Proportion of Non-Graduates who are Students with Disabilities
Percent of Non Graduates in the State who are Students w/ Disabilities
Percent of Students with Disabilities Within the 2015 Cohort
Students With Disabilities Student ACGR
Nationally, the gaps between students with disabilities and those without now stands at 21.1 percentage points. In 29 states, students in the general education population graduate at rates of 20 percentage points or more than their special education peers. In another 18 states, the gap between students with disabilities and those without is between 10 and 20 percentage points. In only three states is the graduation gap less than 10 points.
DRIVER 4: ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS
The number of ELL students in America’s public schools is climbing, increasing from 8.8 percent (an estimated 4.2 million students) in 2003-04 to 9.2 percent (an estimated 4.5 million) in 2013-14. ELL students are concentrated heavily in six states, five of which are in the west. The District of Columbia and six states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas – had 10 percent or more of their public school students as English Language Learners.
Table 9. States with the Highest Proportion Non-Graduates who are English Language Learners (ELL)
Percent of Non Graduates in the State who are ELL
Percent of ELL Students Within the 2015 Cohort
ELL Student ACGR
In Arizona and New York, barely a third of ELL students are graduating, while Hawaii, Maryland, and Virginia graduate less than half of their ELL students. The 10 states with the highest proportion of ELL non-graduates comprised 66 percent of all ELL non-graduates in the country, while over one-third of English Language Learners who failed to graduate on time are located in California alone. In California and New Mexico, over one-third of the students who failed to graduate on time were English Language Learners.
DRIVER 5: LOW-GRADUATION-RATE HIGH SCHOOLS
Since 2002, the number of large, low-graduation-rate high schools has been cut in half and there are now fewer than 900,000 students enrolled in them – down from 2.5 million.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are required to identify high schools enrolling 100 or more students that graduate less than two-thirds of students on time for intervention and support. Altogether, there were 2,249 low-graduation-rate high schools in 2015, making up just 12 percent of all public high schools enrolling 100 or more students. Fifty-six percent of low-graduation-rate high schools were in cities and 25 percent were in suburban areas, while just 8 and 10 percent were found in small towns and rural areas, respectively.
Table 10. States with Highest Percentage of Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools and Overall State ACGR, 2014-15
% of High Schools Enrolling 100 or More Students with ACGR of 67% or Less
State ACGR 2014-15
Source: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
Six in ten students in low-graduation-rate high schools qualified as being low-income in 2015, meaning that there is little economic diversity in the nation’s most challenged high schools.
District-operated brick-and-mortar high schools make up 90.5 percent of all regular high schools and 60 percent of all regular low-graduation-rate schools. Regular brick-and-mortar charter schools comprise 8.3 percent of all regular high schools and 29 percent of all regular low-graduation-rate schools. For comparison’s sake, 74 percent of regular district-operated brick-and-mortar high schools are high-graduation-rate high schools – graduating 85 percent or more of students. Forty-eight percent of regular brick-and-mortar charter schools are high-graduation-rate schools.
Virtual schools still make up a small percentage of all public schools in the country, but despite their small numbers and presence in less than half of all states, they still amount to roughly one in ten regular low-graduation-rate schools.
Though alternative schools make up roughly six percent of all high schools enrolling 100 or more students, they account for 30 percent of all low-graduation-rate high schools. Sixty percent of alternative schools and programs graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students in four years. Alternative high schools served just under 300,000 students in 2015. Black and Hispanic/Latino students and low-income students are over-represented in alternative high schools compared to the student population in all high schools.
Create high-quality ESSA implementation plans. States should adhere closely to the statute on identifying low-graduation-rate high schools as those with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, continue to use the four-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate in this determination, and give substantial weight to graduation rates in state accountability plans.
Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools. States and school districts should adopt evidence-based practices, including implementing early warning systems to identify and support students who are off track based on their attendance, behavior, and course performance records, making social and emotional learning a part of the curriculum, and providing students with high-quality postsecondary and workforce engagement opportunities.
Get the cohort rate right. The four-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) remains the “gold standard” measure for collecting and reporting on high school graduation rates, but there is still room for improvement that would provide even greater uniformity and transparency. Issues of variability in determining cohort graduation rates reduce accuracy and comparability across states, and we recommend taking steps to resolve these issues and strengthen ACGR.
Report extended-year graduation rates. Requiring states to report extended-year graduation rates for students graduating in five and six years would create a policy incentive (and often, financial incentive) for schools and districts to keep off-track students in school and re-engage those who may have left the system. In last year’s Building a Grad Nation report, we found that when extended-year graduation rates were included, the national average would be raised by roughly four percentage points and could provide a clearer picture of how many students ultimately earn a high school diploma.
Strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools. While some states and districts have created high-quality alternative accountability systems, far too many alternative schools and programs, with some of the poorest academic outcomes of any school, are skirting accountability. To ensure young people have access to the best possible alternative options, greater efforts must be made to strengthen accountability for these schools.
- Appendix C. Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rates (ACGR), by State and Subgroup, 2014-15
- Appendix E. Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) Gaps, by Subgroup and State, 2014-15
- Appendix G. Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) by State, Percent Low-Income, ACGR Low-Income, ACGR Estimated Non-Low-Income
- Appendix H. Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR, 2014-15) for Students with Disabilities (SPED) versus Non-SPED Students
- Appendix I. Estimated Number of Additional Graduates Needed to Reach a 90 Percent Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) by State and Subgroup, 2014-15
- Appendix J. Estimated Number of Additional Graduates Needed to Reach a 90 Percent Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) by State and Subgroup, 2014-15
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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: