Press Release

GradNation Calls for ‘Meeting the Moment’ Plan to Boost High School Graduation and Postsecondary Readiness During and Beyond COVID-19

National high school graduation rate reached an all-time high prior to the pandemic, but more must be done to reach 90% goal for all students as schools and communities navigate COVID-19 disruptions to learning and the challenges of systematic racism

WASHINGTON, D.C – New data show that pre-COVID-19, the nation’s high school graduation rate was at an all-time high—driven by substantial gains over the past decade among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students as well as students with disabilities. These, however, are among the very populations most affected by COVID-19, its disruptions to schooling, and the nation’s on-going struggles with systematic racism. Thus, according to a new report from the GradNation campaign, there is a need for the nation to ‘Meet the Moment’ and find ways to build upon the gains of the past decade by focusing on the states, districts, and high schools where the challenges are the most acute.

Building A Grad Nation 2020: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates is an annual update by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education and supported by AT&T.

Three former U.S. secretaries of education—Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, and Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., who served under President Barack Obama—will join the GradNation campaign today to discuss progress to date; reflect on how the nation can continue its progress toward a 90 percent high school graduation and postsecondary readiness goal for all students; and share their thoughts on how to support states, districts, and schools toward this goal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread protests in response to systemic racism. A panel of young people will speak to the challenges and opportunities of high school completion in our country’s current environment. Those interested in attending can register for the 1:30pm E.T. event at buildagradnation2020.eventbrite.com.

The report shows that the number of “low-graduation-rate high schools”—schools enrolling more than 100 students with a graduation rate at or below 67 percent—has dropped markedly. In 2016, there were 2,425 such schools, while there were 2,062 in 2018. And yet, low-income, Black, and Hispanic students disproportionately attend these schools, where the average graduation rate is just 41 percent.

“While the nation has made encouraging progress in high school graduation rates over the past two decades, with 3.8 million more students graduating rather than dropping out, too many students remain trapped in low-performing schools,” said John Bridgeland, Founder and CEO of Civic. “The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened inequities and provided a rare chance for the nation to focus on what really matters to ensure every child has equal access to a quality education.”

To reach the national 90 percent goal in the aftermath of the pandemic will require both a nationwide response and intense focus on the sub-set of states, districts, and high schools where the challenges are the greatest. The report details a “Meeting the Moment” plan that targets 22 states for accelerated action around high school graduation and postsecondary readiness—19 states with the highest numbers of students not graduating on-time, plus an additional three states with graduation rates below the national average. Half of the students not graduating from high school on-time in these states are found in just 452 school districts and 887 high schools. The plan focuses on these school districts and schools, recommending effective, evidence-based interventions where they will have the greatest leverage and improve outcomes for the most students.

“As we grapple with the pandemic and ongoing systemic racism, we must commit to meeting the moment on high school graduation and postsecondary preparedness, particularly in the places where the need is the greatest and where efforts can reach the most historically underserved students. This will greatly benefit the students, their communities, and our nation,” said Robert Balfanz, Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Key facts from the report include the following:

  • Pre-COVID-19, the student sub-groups with the lowest high school graduation rates were students with disabilities (67.1%), students identified as experiencing homelessness (67.5%), and English language learners (68.3%)—all groups highly impacted by COVID-19 and its disruptions to schooling.
  • Black and Hispanic students experienced large high school graduation rate gains over the past decade, with the rate for Black and Hispanic students increasing 12 and 10 percentage points respectively. Pre-COVID-19, Hispanic students, for the first time in our nation’s history, had exceeded the 80% threshold for on-time high school graduation rates (81%) and Black student were within 1 point (79%). Despite significant progress, this reveals that 1 in 5 Black and Hispanic high school students, pre-COVID-19, were still not graduating on-time, compared to fewer than 1 in 10 white students.
  • Among the nation’s remaining low graduation rate high schools, defined by ESSA as high schools with on-time graduation rates below 67%, 37% are alternative schools, 31% are charter schools, and 10% are virtual high schools. This indicates that much of the nation’s remaining challenge is located beyond traditional comprehensive neighborhood high schools.
  • One of the biggest remaining challenges to increasing postsecondary readiness rates is that in 44 states, high school graduation requirements are not aligned with college admission requirements of state university systems. As states re-evaluate high school graduation rate requirements in the wake of the pandemic, it will be essential to align them with postsecondary requirements.

“High school graduation is an absolute prerequisite for young people to successfully move to the next steps in their lives,” said Dennis Vega, the interim president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “Helping more young people reach this milestone requires listening to them and providing them with learning experiences that are responsive to their needs and barriers.”

In addition to statistics on graduation rates, the report contains several policy recommendations, including more widespread use of “early warning systems” to monitor students’ attendance, behavior, and coursework, which can predict high school completion.

"The progress our country has made is encouraging, and now we must redouble our equity-focused efforts to close opportunity gaps that lead to vulnerable students not completing high school,” said Deborah Delisle, president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education. "As our economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, implementing this report’s policy recommendations will be crucial to ensuring all students graduate high school ready to be successful in college and their careers."

Authors and Sponsors

Building a Grad Nation is authored by Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Eleanor Manspile of Civic and Bob Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Together, the four organizations lead the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce. This year’s report, presented by lead sponsor AT&T and supporting sponsors Pure Edge and Target, is the eleventh annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates. AT&T’s support of Building a Grad Nation is part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature philanthropic initiative focused on investing in education and job training to create a skilled and diverse workforce.

To read the full report and to access state and district data and other resources, visit: www.americaspromise.org/2020-building-grad-nation-report.

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Civic is a bipartisan social enterprise firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities, and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. Created to enlist the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to help address our nation’s toughest problems, Civic fashions new initiatives and strategies that achieve measurable results in the fields of education, civic engagement, economic mobility, and many other domestic policy issues. www.civicllc.com

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education seeks to identify the barriers to high school graduation, develop strategic solutions to overcoming these barriers, and build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions so that all students graduate prepared for adult success. www.every1graduates.org

America’s Promise Alliance is the driving force behind a nationwide movement to improve the lives and futures of America’s youth. Its work is anchored in the belief that every young person deserves to succeed, and every adult is responsible for making that happen. By bringing together hundreds of national nonprofits, businesses, community and civic leaders, educators, citizens, and young people, the Alliance does what no single organization can do on its own: catalyze action on a scale that reaches millions of young people. www.AmericasPromise.org

The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship. www.all4ed.org