2016 Building a Grad Nation Report



2016 Building a Grad Nation Report

Progress and challenge in raising high school graduation rates

Release date:

May 12, 2015

Written annually by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and released in partnership with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, this report examines the progress and challenges the nation faces in reaching the GradNation goal of a national on-time graduation rate of 90 percent by the Class of 2020.


The nation has achieved an 82.3 percent high school graduation rate – a record high.

Graduation rates rose for all student subgroups, and the number of low-graduation-rate high schools and students enrolled in them dropped again, indicating that progress has had far-reaching benefits for all students.

This progress, however, has not come without its challenges.

First, this year the nation is slightly off pace to reach a 90 percent on-time graduation rate by 2020.

Second, at both the national and state levels, troubling graduation gaps remain between White students and their Black and Latino peers, low-income and non-low-income students, and students with and without disabilities.

Third, low-graduation-rate high schools – a key focus of the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act – pose a significant roadblock to the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate for all students. While the number of low-graduation-rate high schools has declined considerably over the past decade, in some states they still predominate.

The 2016 Building a Grad Nation report is the first to analyze 2014 graduation data using new criteria established by ESSA and the first to show the impact of additional time on graduation rates.

If all states were required to report five-year graduation rates, the national high school grad rate would go up about 3 percentage points. If all states were required to report six-year grad rates, the rate would go up an additional point.

The report provides a new national and state-by-state analysis of low-graduation-rate high schools; the number of additional students it will take for the country and each state to reach 90 per-cent; a look at the validity of graduation rates; and policy recommendations for change.

National & State Picture

After flat-lining for 30 years, high school graduation rates began to rise in 2002. This steady climb became more accelerated in 2006 and, in 2012, the nation reached an historic milestone, an 80 percent on-time graduation rate.

The upward trend continued through 2014, as the national graduation rate hit another record, 82.3 percent, up more than 10 percentage points since the turn of the century.

When the graduation rate hit 80 percent, we calculated that the national graduation rate would need to increase by roughly 1.2 percentage points per year to achieve 90 percent by the Class of 2020. Between 2013 and 2014, the nation missed this mark, and will now have to average closer to 1.3 percentage points per year to reach the goal.

Moving from percentages to raw numbers, meeting the 90 percent goal would mean graduating 284,591 more students

Estimated Additional Graduates Needed to Reach a National 90 Percent Grad Rate [Table 1]

To graduate students equitably across all subgroups means focusing on students of color, those with disabilities, English-language learners and students from low-income homes. Despite all the progress, these subgroups still graduate at lower rates than other students.

For more information on subgroup graduation rates, go to the 2016 Building a Grad Nation Data Brief.

Estimated Number of Additional Graduates Needed to Reach a 90 Percent Graduation Rate (ACGR) by State, 2013-14 [Figure 6]

At the state level:

  • Iowa became the first state to surpass 90 percent, with a 90.5 percent rate in 2014.
  • 20 other states are on pace to reach a 90 percent graduation rate.
  • Five on-pace states – Nebraska, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Texas and Wisconsin – are within 2 percentage points of the goal.
  • 21 states are currently off track to reach 90 percent by the Class of 2020.On-Pace/Off-Pace State Map [Figure 5]

Low-Grad-Rate Schools

The number of low-graduation-rate schools – defined by ESSA as those enrolling 100 or more students and graduating 67 percent or less of them – has declined considerably, but in some states they still predominate. (Note: Previous reports have focused on high schools with at least 300 students. This calculation, made to align with ESSA, allows a closer look at more rural, charter, alternative and virtual schools.

  • There are 1,000 large, low-graduation-rate high schools (more than 300 students) nationwide, enrolling 924,000 students, compared to 2,000 in 2002, enrolling 2.6 million students. 
  • Vulnerable students are overrepresented in low-graduation-rate high schools. Of the roughly 924,000 in large low-graduation-rate high schools, 65 percent were from low-income families, and 63 percent were Black or Hispanic/Latino.
  • When including high schools with student populations of at least 100 students, there are 2,937 low-graduation-rate high schools across the nation, enrolling 1.23 million students.
  • Nationwide, 33 percent of all non-graduates in 2014 were enrolled in low-graduation-rate high schools.
  • Though alternative, charter, and virtual schools collectively account for 14 percent of high schools and 8 percent of high school students, they make up 52 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools nationwide and produce 20 percent of non-graduates. Regular district high schools account for 41 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools and are where the majority of students who do not graduate on time can be found.

States with the Highest Percentage of Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools, 2014 [Table 3]

  • Low-graduation-rate high schools by school types. Out of all low-grad-rate schools in the nation, 41 percent are regular district schools, 28 percent are alternative schools, 26 percent are charter schools and 7 percent are virtual schools.

    (According to NCES definitions, there is inherent overlap between the alternative, charter, and virtual schools categories, so these numbers do not add up to 100 percent. When looking just at district-operated alternative schools, they make up 23 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools, and when separating virtual schools out from charter schools, the percentage of low-graduation-rate schools that are charter schools falls to 22 percent.)
  • Regular district schools (84% of all high schools). Seven percent (7%) of regular district public schools, or roughly 1,000 schools nationwide, were low-graduation rate high schools. Regular district high schools had an average graduation rate of 85 percent. The number of low-graduation-rate regular district high schools across states ranges from zero in Delaware, Hawaii, and Kentucky to more than 276 in New York and 203 in Florida.
  • Charter schools (8% of all high schools). Now authorized in all but seven states, the number of charter schools is rising with mixed results on graduation rates. Thirty percent (30%) of charter schools were low-graduation-rate high schools, while 44 percent had high graduation rates of 85 percent and above. Nationwide, charter schools reported an average graduation rate of 70 percent. Hawaii, Arizona, Indiana, Ohio and California have the highest percentages of low-graduation-rate charter high schools.  
  • Alternative schools (6% of all high schools).  Established to meet the needs of “at risk” students, 57 percent of alternative schools are low-graduation-rate high schools. They have an average graduation rate of 52 percent. Sixty percent (60%) of students at alternative high schools are students of color. In 10 states, including Kentucky, Texas, Washington, Idaho and Iowa, 50 percent or more of low-graduation-rate high schools were alternative schools in 2014. Other states have experienced greater success with alternative schools.
  • Virtual schools (1% of all high schools). Schools offering all instruction online have greatly increased in recent years. Virtual schools were disaggregated in NCES data for the first time in 2013-14. The data shows that 87 percent of virtual schools are low-grad-rate schools with an average graduation rate of 40 percent. States with the highest percentage of non-graduates coming from virtual schools include Ohio, Idaho, Pennsylvania and Colorado. 

Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools, High-Graduation-Rate High Schools, and Average ACGR, by School Type, 2014 [Table 13]

Validity of Grad Rates

Rising high school graduation rates have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, as more people question whether the gains are real, whether high school diplomas are a meaningful measure of achievement, and whether high school graduates are adequately prepared for college and careers.

  • The most rapid rise in graduation rates occurred from 2006 to 2014, during an era when states were increasing graduation requirements, including exit and end-of course exams. Thus, graduation rates rose even as it was getting harder to graduate.

  • If standards were being lowered, one would expect ACT and SAT scores to decrease, but scores (and the percentage of SAT-takers who meet the College Board’s College and Career Readiness Standards) remain flat.

  • There is evidence that more students are participating in rigorous coursework. Since 2004, the total number of graduates taking an AP course has risen from 558,993 in 2004 to over 1 million in 2013. The number of students passing at least one AP course has risen in tandem, from 351,647 to 607,505 in 2013.

  • We will have a more comprehensive look at the relationship between high school and college and career readiness in a forthcoming report.

Policy Recommendations

To move the needle to 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and help ensure accuracy in graduation rate reporting, the report includes recommendations, including:

  • Set clear definitions and give graduation rates the weight they deserve in ESSA so that schools and districts are held accountable for graduating traditionally underserved student.

  • Clear up issues of clarity and variability in graduation rate collection and reporting regulations to allow for apples-to-apples comparisons.

  • Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools.

  • Require the reporting of extended-year graduation rates. Some students require an additional year or two of high school to earn a diploma. Today 31 states report five-year rates for the Class of 2014. These additional graduates move the national graduation rate from 82.3 percent to greater than 86 percent. And six-year rates, reported in 13 stats, add another percentage point.

  • Ensure that alternative and virtual schools are included in state accountability and improvement systems.

  • Provide real pathways to engage students who have fallen off track. Students who have fallen off track to graduation need the things that all students need to be successful: positive relationships with caring adults, strong and tailored instruction, opportunities to engage in learning experiences that connect school to careers and life beyond, and the support and resources to help them figure out what they want to do once they have earned their diploma. These should be at the core of any school or program, particularly those serving vulnerable student populations.

Data Brief

Released in January, the 2016 Building a Grad Nation Data Brief focused on 2013-14 national and state graduation rate data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. 

The brief provides information on graduation gaps at the national and state level for students from low-income families, Black and Hispanic/Latino students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.

The brief also provides State Progress Reports.

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation about the progress we’re making and the urgent work that remains using the hashtag #GradNation and downloading the partner and community social media guide.

Help spread the word about the 2016 Building a Grad Nation report (just click to launch and edit it in Twitter): 

Download the 2016 Building a #GradNation Report by @CivicEnterprise & @JHU_EGC w/ @All4Ed @AmericasPromise http://bit.ly/1SQ1Dg5

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About GradNation

The GradNation campaign – led by America’s Promise Alliance, the Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University – mobilizes individuals and organizations to raise the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the Class of 2020, with no school graduating fewer than 80 percent of its students on time. GradNation also aims for dramatic increases in postsecondary enrollment and graduation.

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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: