graduation event, students listen to a speech



GRADUATION RATE CHALLENGE: The Graduation Rate is Increasing but is At Risk of Stagnating. What do the Gains Mean for Youth?

Release date:

May 03, 2019

The GradNation campaign is led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the Alliance for Excellent Education. We created this Tough Question and Answer to draw out a few of the issues

Graduation rates increased in America
Why have high school graduation rates increased in America?

   America’s high school graduation rate is on the rise thanks in large part to the hard work and commitment of students, families, schools, communities, and state organizations, sometimes in the face of great challenge. The national on-time high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 84.6 percent for the class of 2017 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). As a result, more than three million additional students have graduated from high school since 2001.

Key leaders at every level of government and in the non-profit and business communities have been supporting efforts in households and classrooms around the country to increase graduation rates.

Key leaders at every level of government and in the non-profit and business communities have been supporting efforts in households and classrooms around the country to increase graduation rates. The last four U.S. presidents emphasized the need to increase graduation rates and set clear goals to assess progress and challenge over time.  They also enabled and encouraged the collection and reporting of disaggregated data to understand gaps in graduation rates among various subgroups of students. As has been the case for more than two decades, governors continue to focus on improving high school graduation rates because the metric is a reliable indicator of their state’s economic vitality and potential of their citizens. As a result, many state, community organizations, and initiatives across the nation are focused on creating and sustaining action to address disparities that exist between groups of young people.

There are a few reasons why we think graduation rates have improved over time –

  1. We have a common graduation rate metric
  2. We set a national goal
  3. State and local practice has improved for the youth who need support
  4. Federal policy supports community-level action for youth

A common graduation rate metric: Building on the Graduation Rate Compact signed by all 50 governors in 2005, the U.S. Department of Education issued regulations in 2008 that had a positive impact on the national high school graduation rate by creating a standard, accurate method to collect high school graduation rate data called the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). Having the same data collection requirements across state improves confidence that the aggregate rate is in fact increasing over time. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) put into law key components of a common graduation rate definition, including uniform expectations for counting the total ninth grade cohort, for accounting for transfers out of the cohort, and for closing the cohort with graduates through the summer after the fourth year of high school. 

In addition to requiring that states use the same method to calculate the high school graduation rate, the regulations required states to set ambitious goals to improve graduation rates and required school districts to intervene in high schools where students from low-income families, students of color, and other traditionally underserved students had consistently low graduation rates. Since the 2008 regulations were issued, the national high school graduation rate increased from 74.7 percent to an all-time high of 84.6 percent in 2017. Leadership and urgency coupled with local practice and a consistent data set led to this remarkable achievement, particularly in light of the lack of progress made in prior years.

National goal set: Four successive U.S. presidents have embraced a 90 percent graduation rate goal, unifying the country around a specific data point. This level of agreement and commitment has helped states focus their policy and implementation efforts to channel resources to improve state-level outcomes and, in turn, contribute to the national goal.  

Chart showing how high school graduation rate has reached a record high, but the U.S. remains off track to reaching 90 percent.

State and local practice: A recent Gallup poll found that K-12 superintendents are most likely to rank high school graduation rates as the most important element in evaluating school effectiveness. Around the country, districts and states have improved graduation rates by understanding what works and implementing effective reforms and practices. These locally implemented practices include using data to make decisions, raising academic expectations for all students, increasing the number of caring adults in the lives of young people living in challenging circumstances, fighting chronic absenteeism, eliminating disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact students of color, and educating the whole child by integrating social, emotional, and academic development into all learning. In many schools and districts across the country, a common refrain is that they seek to create an “every student counts culture” where educators and school staff get to know the student, understand his or her progress and challenges over time, and intervene to provide the support needed. 

The GradNation campaign GradNation Action Platform reflects the success that partner organizations and districts have seen in states and communities across the country in improving outcomes for high school students. The six platform areas are high-quality data, non-academic factors, school climate, caring adult relationships, youth re-engagement, and pathways. The platform does not represent one-shot, silver bullet practice areas. In fact, a comprehensive approach—one that addresses three to six of these platform areas—is probably required in most places.

The GradNation Action Platform identifies six areas that every community should act on to accelerate high school graduation rate improvements.

Recent developments in federal policy: Local practice and commitment is further bolstered by a federal policy context that increasingly reflects common data expectations and school-level accountability and support systems that allow for flexible approaches to support students. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, is ushering in a new phase of accountability and support based on high school graduation rates, college or career readiness measures, student performance, and indicators of school quality and student success. The policy conditions are in place for states to determine which practice levers they want schools to act upon – getting credit for on-time graduation rates, providing rigorous coursework to more students, offering dual enrollment, and tracking absenteeism and discipline data, to name a few. 

Data to support state-level accountability and support systems will be collected for the first time in the 2018-2019 school year and create the opportunity to encourage a range of strategies in high schools to improve graduation outcomes and promote college and/or career readiness. Over half the states included metrics beyond standardized test performance and absenteeism in their high school accountability systems. Action areas include reducing exclusionary discipline practices, improving student attendance, expanding academic pathways, and promoting postsecondary pathways. Incentivizing these types of strategies has the potential to shift the school environment to one that meets students where they are and supports the whole child for life after graduation. 

Lack of confidence in national high school graduation rate gains reflects two major themes: (1) that data is manipulated to show increases and (2) that graduating from high school does not necessarily signal postsecondary readiness.

→ More students, particularly more low-income students and students of color, graduating from high school is cause for celebration. However, at the same time that we see gains, there is a healthy skepticism about whether the gains are real. Lack of confidence in national high school graduation rate gains reflects two major themes: (1) that data is manipulated to show increases and (2) that graduating from high school does not necessarily signal postsecondary readiness. In the next few questions, we begin to address these themes.

Do rates reflect inflated figures?
Does an increasing national graduation rate reflect inflated figures from states and districts? Can we be confident in the national high school graduation rate data?

Data analysis in the 2017 Building a Grad Nation report reveals that we can have confidence in graduation rate data at the national level, and at the same time be curious about the local practices that impact school data. More detailed analysis at the school and district levels would be required to fully understand graduation rate gains at the local level. 

Cover for the Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates report

One way to demonstrate confidence in state-level graduation rates is to compare the number of students in the ninth-grade cohort (who start high school together) to the number of students in the graduating cohort (who graduate high school together). It is natural for students to leave the cohort during the high school years – families move out of town, students transfer to private school, students pass away, etc. – and the graduating cohort size rightfully does not include these students at the end of four years. Removing students due to transfers and death is what makes it an adjusted cohort. By comparing the size of the ACGR cohorts for the classes of 2011 and 2015 with the size of their actual ninth grade enrollments in 2007-08 and 2010-11 (the years those two cohorts entered ninth grade), it is possible to see if states are wrongfully removing students from their data to boost graduation rates by shrinking the cohort over time. The data show, however, that cohort sizes shrank at a rate comparable to decreases in ninth grade enrollment. In 34 states, changes in the ACGR cohort over time were similar to concurrent changes in ninth grade enrollment, while just six states had cohorts shrink at a more substantial rate than the overall ninth grade enrollment.

Looking closer at state-level student enrollment data sheds some light on the extent to which overall rates are inflated, if they are. The data indicate that inappropriately removing students from cohorts may inflate graduation rates in some individual school districts, but that this practice does not involve enough students to significantly impact state graduation rates (Table 14, 2017 Building a Grad Nation Report). GradNation researchers have found that in cases where there have been errors, the district’s actual graduation rate is just a percentage point or two lower than their reported rate, which, even if true, should not reduce confidence in state or national graduation rate figures. 

It’s important to note that the rates under the two best calculations – the ACGR and the Average Freshmen Graduation Rate (AFGR) – have moved in parallel and are very close to being the same percentage. 

Any instance of improper removal from the graduating cohort should be uncovered and prevented because it short-changes that young person’s educational experience and economic opportunity in adulthood.


Taken together, there is no evidence that data issues are so large that they should cast doubt on the national trend of rising graduation rates. However, at the same time that we celebrate national increases, we must remain vigilant that students are only removed from their ninth-grade cohorts for appropriate reasons. Any instance of improper removal from the graduating cohort should be uncovered and prevented because it short-changes that young person’s educational experience and economic opportunity in adulthood. 

Improving Tracking & Reporting
How can states and districts improve tracking and reporting of high school graduation rate data? 

  The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) is now in its seventh year, and though it is still considered to be the “gold standard” of graduation rate metrics under ESSA, there are ways it can be improved to ensure the best data is available. There remains variability in what is considered a “regular” diploma, how transfer students are taken into account, and how certain subgroups (e.g., students with disabilities, English learners, low-income students) are identified within the cohort. These and other issues challenge our ability to compare graduation rates across states, but more troubling, have created loopholes for states in calculating their rates. 

GradNation researchers have identified areas of the data collection and analysis that merit attention and improvement. Opportunities to improve graduation rate data include:

  • Clarifying the type of diploma(s) included in graduation rate

    Only students who earn a “regular high school diploma” may be counted in the graduation rate cohort. These students receive a standard high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in the state. Given the range of diploma pathways available to students in each state, what is the diploma that is “awarded to the preponderance of students” in a given state? Here, the ambiguity may have significant implications for some states’ graduation rates, and the U.S. Department of Education should issue guidance clarifying what “preponderance of students” means. Districts, states, and the federal government should ensure the data reflects a uniform understanding of this term within each state. 

  • Clarifying student transfers

    A district cannot remove a student from the graduation rate cohort unless it has documentation confirming the student transferred to another school or program. If there is not confirmation, that student must stay in the graduation cohort. (ESEA section 8101(25)). However, ambiguity can create loopholes. Must the documentation be written on letterhead? Is word of mouth sufficient? What happens if the student leaves the state? Does withdrawal from a school indicate transfer somewhere else? Can the district infer that the student is being homeschooled? States must specify for districts what type of documentation is required to consider a student a transfer and what to consider in removing a student from the cohort.

  • Reporting extended-year graduation rates

    ESSA includes a standard definition for extended-year graduation rates, but not all states report the data. Extended-year rates (e.g., five-year and six-year graduation rates) are often higher than four-year rates, indicating more students are successfully graduating on a longer timeline. The GradNation campaign realizes the importance of four-year graduation rates, and ideally all students would graduate in that time. But we know not all students have ideal circumstances. While most students do graduate in four years, there are students who take an additional year or two to graduate. Currently, 31 states report five-year extended graduation rates, and just 13 report six-year rates. All states should report such data. 

  • Disaggregating data for key student subgroups

    There are elements of graduation rate data not being collected that would provide invaluable information. Currently, federal graduation rate data is not disaggregated by sex, leaving a gaping hole in how each is doing in high school. Having this data set might help validate or invalidate perceptions around high school graduation among males or females in a given state, district, or school (e.g., the perception in some places that young men of color are not graduating high school at the same rate as young women). There is also no way to combine various subgroups (e.g., low-income Hispanic students, Black students with disabilities) and disaggregate the data to better pinpoint the students needing assistance and the interventions that can help them graduate.

While ESSA resolves some of the problems we saw with graduation rate data in previous years, states and districts have an opportunity to ensure the accuracy of their data. Work remains to answer the question of whether data includes homeschooled students, students in the juvenile justice system, and students in governor’s schools. Careful monitoring from advocacy groups, community partners, and journalists will be required to ensure students are not being excluded from the data and that graduating students are meeting high standards.

Validity of news reports
What is the validity of news reports about a few states with questionable data practices around graduation rates?

As discussed above, it is possible to have confidence in the national graduation rate and at the same time question local practices. Indeed, questioning whether all students are being held to high expectations as they earn their high school diplomas can help to improve local practices. Leading journalists have rightfully drawn attention to instances where local practice casts a shadow on graduation rate data. 

The following examples signal the need to track local outcomes closely and the challenge of balancing student’s lives with maintaining high standards for high school graduation –

  • At one Washington, D.C., high school the district and media hailed a 100 percent college application and acceptance rate though half of the graduates reportedly missed nearly three months of school. Reporting revealed the complexity of these results, acknowledging the impacts of trauma and economic demands on high schoolers that contributes to their absenteeism, in addition to district policies that encourage credit recovery and make-up work to meet course requirements, which call academic rigor into question. The district’s action in response to the investigation is ongoing. 
  • Ohio lawmakers created an alternative pathway only for students in the class of 2018 to earn a high school diploma. Without the change, the Ohio Department of Education predicted that over a third of the graduating class would be off-track to graduate. Rather than achieve a specific score on an end-of-course series of tests, the class of 2018 can meet diploma requirements that include senior year attendance and grades or project and 120 hours of community service. The modified requirements are in place only for the class of 2018. Some question whether a different set of requirements for one class of graduates means that they are graduating ready for something less rigorous than graduates of future classes. 
  • In Chicago, the district corrected four years of graduation rates to properly account for students who enrolled in outside-of-the-district alternative schools as dropouts from the district, rather than transfers. Low-performing public-school students have the option to enroll in GED programs, alternative schools outside the system, alternative schools within the system, and job training programs, all of which are part of the district’s portfolio approach to schooling. Previously, the district misclassified students who enrolled in GED programs, alternative schools outside the system, and job training programs as out-of-district transfers, effectively removing hundreds of students from the district’s records so they would not hurt Chicago’s graduation rate. These students are now counted as dropouts, which resulted in a two to three percentage point decrease in reported five-year graduation rates from 2011 to 2014. 
  • In Texas, the state’s “leaver code” allowed schools to remove students from cohorts with very little required documentation, defining many dropouts as “other leavers,” which removes them from the students included in the state and school graduation rate. The Texas Education Agency subsequently provided districts with guidance on the documentation required to remove a student from the cohort, including the need for signatures from an authorized district representative and a parent, guardian, or adult responsible for the student or a student who is qualified to sign on his/her own. 

The intersection between graduation rate data and the practices that impact the graduation rate reflects the complexity in how high schools serve young people. Seemingly small decisions – whether a student is considered in or out of the district when he changes programs, how many hours a student must miss to be considered absent – can have a large impact on the high school experience and, taken together, can impact local graduation rates. 

States Lowering Standards
Have states lowered their standards to graduate more students?

No. Evidence indicates that states increased their expectations of students at the same time that graduation rates increased. The most rapid rise in graduation rates occurred from 2006 to 2014, the peak years of exit and end-of-course examinations and an era when states were increasing graduation requirements, according to NCES data. In other words, graduation rates rose even as it was getting more difficult to graduate. 

NCES has tracked states’ course credit requirements and exit exam requirements for a standard high school graduation from 2008-2013, the period of time in which graduation rates rose most significantly. Rather than seeing evidence of states easing graduation standards, NCES found that the vast majority of graduation requirements remained unchanged. In fact, while one state (Illinois) made it easier to receive a diploma, 13 states increased their graduation requirements over that period of time.

Overall, the evidence shows that, in most places high school graduation rates and more-rigorous standards are rising together.

Overall, the evidence shows that, in most places, high school graduation rates and more-rigorous standards are rising together. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress' High School Transcript Study show that the trends are moving in the right direction: In 2009, a greater percentage of high school graduates completed a curriculum that was more challenging than it was in 1990 or 2005. 

Diploma requirements matter: Diploma requirements represent a compelling indicator of local standards and expectations for high school students. Some critics believe that a higher graduation rate means that states are adjusting their standards to be less rigorous to graduate more students. In fact, many states have clearly articulated expectations for their graduates in the form of course requirements that result in a college- and career-ready young person. The problem is not that there are reduced standards across the board, rather that there is great variance in diploma requirements. In the years since 2014, when most states had shifted to more rigorous academic standards, diploma requirements have been shifting and expanding such that a single graduating class can reflect a range of readiness rather than a uniform set of expectations. One analysis of diploma requirements in nine states revealed that traditionally underserved students are more likely to obtain a diploma that is not objectively considered a college- and career-ready diploma. Among the states in the study, there was a large difference between the rate of students graduating with a college- and career-ready diploma and the graduation rate. The good news, however, is that states that set the college- and career-ready diploma as the standard diploma for all students saw smaller gaps in attainment. The study underscores the need to remain vigilant in ensuring that high school diploma requirements are rigorous in preparing young people for life after high school. 

Policy shifts under ESSA: New language in ESSA on the type of diplomas that can count in the graduation rate may cause a shift in diploma requirements in some states (see above). To be counted in the regulatory adjusted cohort graduation rate, a student must obtain “a standard high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in the state.” We do not yet know the scope of impact of this language. For states with multiple diploma pathways, the U.S. Department of Education has not clarified which among them would be a “standard” diploma that is awarded to a “preponderance” of students. Indian and New York are wrestling with this issue right now –

  • In Indiana, lawmakers are considering changes to high school diploma requirements to allow for multiple diploma pathways, perhaps up to six options. Some are concerned that offering different pathways may result in not providing the same opportunities to all students. For example, one pathway requires students to complete a work-, project-, or service-based learning experience; another pathway requires a specific score on the ACT or SAT. Under new language in ESSA, it remains unclear whether multiple diploma options would all count as graduates. 
  • In New York, most students graduate with a Regents diploma and some graduate with a “local” diploma—a less rigorous option than the Regents diploma. It remains unclear whether both a Regents diploma and a “local” diploma can count towards graduation rates or, under new federal law, only the Regents diploma counts. The state graduation rate could drop by as many as four percentage points if “local” diplomas do not count. 

States are actively wrestling with issues of diploma rigor and efforts to maintain high standards are with merit. As education practices shift, there are legitimate concerns about states and districts lowering the bar to graduate by changing or discontinuing high school exit exams or modifying requirements through waivers. On the other hand, some states and communities are working closely with business leaders and higher education to determine what high school course indicates college readiness. 

Are more young people ready for postsecondary education?
Does an increased graduation rate mean there are more young people ready for postsecondary education and careers?

One way to determine whether more young people are ready for postsecondary education is to use an indicator for college readiness, such as ACT and SAT performance. As the country graduates more students who might otherwise have dropped out of high school, some assume schools and districts must be lowering standards. If that were true, as more of these graduates take the ACT and SAT, one would expect test scores to decline as graduation rates increase. The evidence does not support this case.

Looking at the percentage of graduates taking benchmark tests such as the SAT and ACT and overall scores over time, scores on the ACT College and Career Readiness Benchmark have on the whole either held fairly steady or increased slightly since 2009, even as the percentage of graduates taking the ACT exam has continued to rise (in 2005, approximately 40 percent of graduates took the ACT, rising to approximately 64 percent in 2016). SAT scores show similar flat-lining rates. Again, while this does not demonstrate increased rigor, it also does not substantiate the concern that standards are being lowered to allow more students to reach graduation.

Another way to measure the “college readiness” of graduating students is the number of passing scores in Advanced Placement courses and exams. AP courses are generally considered to have the rigor of a college-level course, and a score of three or higher on an AP exam can be used for college credit. Since 2004, the annual number of students participating in AP courses has risen from around 1 million in 2002 to more than 2.7 million in 2017. The number of students passing at least one AP course has risen in tandem, from roughly 1 million in 2003 to more than 2.8 million in 2017. This data also holds true for low-income students, who historically take AP courses and exams at far lower rates than their non-low-income peers.

The data are overwhelming that the single best predictor of college success is a student’s high school grade point average (GPA), combined with a college-ready sequence of standards-based high school courses

Furthermore, while standardized test scores largely drive the current conversation on readiness and have a role to play, the data are overwhelming that the single best predictor of college success is a student’s high school grade point average (GPA), combined with a college-ready sequence of standards-based high school courses. GPA provides a well-rounded view of a student’s performance in high school and is indicative of both content mastery and ability to navigate school. Giving greater attention to the courses students are taking, the content knowledge they gain, and the grades they earn can help broaden and contextualize the readiness discussion. 

Paper Thin? Why all high school diplomas are not created equal

The real goal is not just to graduate more young people, but to keep more young people on the path to success in adulthood. That's why those of us working to increase graduation rates are equally forceful in insisting that we must continue to raise the bar and the value of a diploma so that graduates are able to succeed in post-secondary education and careers. But states must take the lead in raising diploma standards and ensuring all youth can access rigorous diploma options. There is evidence that not all diplomas are created equal and some of our youth are not held to the same standards as some of their peers.

How does accountability factor into all of this?
How does accountability factor into all of this?

Real change for young people happens locally—in schools and communities around the country, and accountability is a must. Formal accountability systems that meet federal requirements under ESSA are beginning to incorporate a variety of measures to assess whether the school system is serving high school age students well. New measures include AP and IB course performance, performance on the military readiness assessment, suspension and expulsion data, industry credentials, among others. Taken together, these measures are intended to provide young people with a high school experience that prepares them for a variety of postsecondary pathways. 

Real change for young people happens locally—in schools and communities around the country, and accountability is a must.


Ultimately, state accountability systems must result in effective supports and resources for low-performing schools and traditionally underserved students—especially in America’s high schools. Districts and communities have an opportunity, now, to act on locally-developed equity agendas for students in low graduation rate schools—increasingly, these are high schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Accountability cannot be limited to comprehensive high schools, because what happens in virtual schools and alternative schools also has a measurable impact on the graduation rate.


This level of accountability cannot be limited to comprehensive high schools, because what happens in virtual schools and alternative schools also has a measurable impact on the graduation rate. Students in these schools deserve the same level of systemic accountability to ensure they have access to college- and career-ready opportunities. If these programs are not consistently expected to achieve positive student outcomes, then they have the ability to put certain young people at a disadvantage. Actors at all levels of the education system must continue to address quality in these alternative programs to ensure high school graduation is within reach for every young person.

Impact of Credit Recovery Programs
Are credit recovery programs helping or harming students’ academic progress?

Yes and no. Credit recovery courses have long been in existence to help students who were failing core coursework to graduate. These courses often took the form of summer school or remediation courses taught by school faculty and continue today to be a necessary option to ensure students graduate high school, often when they are just a few credits short. With the advent of computer technology, credit recovery courses have become an efficient means for school districts to help more students earn their diploma in a timely manner. But the approach is also a lightning rod for criticism from those who see these courses as a means to push kids through high school with little regard to learning. Much of this criticism stems from reports out of some of the largest school districts in the country – New York City, Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and DC Public Schools – as well as others, that have used credit recovery courses as a tool, often as part of larger improvement efforts, to boost graduation rates (Edelman & Sanders, 2018; Kohli, 2017; Koran, 2017; Marchello, 2017; McGee & Squires, 2018; Stein, 2018). 

Questions have been raised about the rigor of credit recovery programs, in particular whether students are able to master critical concepts online and in a condensed time period, and if these courses are more susceptible to student gaming. Questions have also been raised over the growth of the credit recovery sector alongside increasing pressure on schools to raise graduation rates. Outside of their use within traditional school settings, there are also now entire alternative schools that have been built upon the credit recovery concept, in which the curriculum is entirely computer based, but how much students are actually learning in these settings is unclear. The challenge is that we do not yet understand when credit recovery courses support a competency-based approach (i.e., learning the part of the courses that led to student failure) and when they represent a short-cut to fast-tracked results with little to no quality learning for some students.

Low-quality practices and pathways have rightfully become a cause for concern and add to the skepticism over rising high school graduation rates, yet, for the most part, the narrative around credit recovery courses comes largely from anecdotes and news coverage. This is due, in large part, to the fact that few rigorous studies have been done on the quality and effectiveness of credit recovery courses. The US Department of Education-sponsored “National Survey on High School Strategies Designed to Help At-Risk Students Graduate” (HSS) did look at the extent of credit recovery courses and found that in the 2014-15 school year:

  • 89 percent of high schools nationwide offered at least one credit recovery course to students who needed them.
  • School principals reported that 15 percent of high school students participated in some type of credit recovery.
  • High-graduation-rate high schools (90 percent and above) were more likely to offer credit recovery than low-graduation-rate high schools (67 percent and below).
  • High-poverty schools (50 percent or more FRL) were more likely than low-poverty schools (less than 35 percent FRL) to offer at least one credit recovery course.
  • Credit recovery courses were most commonly provided to students online.

These results help provide perspective on how widely used credit recovery courses are, but it offers little understanding of the effectiveness of these courses. 

More research is needed to better understand the impact of credit recovery programs on student learning and the extent to which they contribute to college- and career-readiness.

More research is needed to better understand the impact of credit recovery programs on student learning and the extent to which they contribute to college- and career-readiness. Studies beyond the HSS study have examined the effectiveness of online versus in-person courses with mixed findings (Heppen, Allensworth, Sorensen, Rickles, Walters, Taylor, Michelman & Clements, 2016; Hughes, Zhou & Petscher, 2015). One of these studies (Heppen et al., 2016) found that although credit recovery courses allowed students to recover credits, content recovery – how much knowledge was gained – was likely minimal. However, given the lack of comprehensive knowledge on the rigor of the most widely-adopted programs, it is difficult to understand the true impact of these courses. Useful areas of research include – 

  • The effectiveness of credit recovery courses and programs 
  • The profile of students who enroll in credit recovery courses and programs
  • How many credit recovery courses each student takes, on average, and what percentage of total credits earned comes from credit recovery
  • What courses are predominantly being taken (i.e., core courses, electives)
  • The degree to which credit recovery courses are enabling some students to learn course content and graduate with a legitimate diploma, and how these students fare in postsecondary, if applicable.
How Schools & Communities Can Help
What can schools and communities do together to improve graduation rates?

In the broader national conversation, the GradNation campaign has worked with a powerful alliance to bring attention, focus, and energy to the graduation rate challenge; highlight evidence-based policies and practices; provide technical assistance to schools, districts, and states; and foster accountability for progress over time. The GradNation interactive data map is a good place to start your engagement by knowing your state’s graduation rate figures. From there, look up local rates and note which student groups are not graduating at comparable levels as their peers. 

Chart describing the gaps in the nations grad rates by cohort.

Acting on the experience and expertise of our partners, the GradNation campaign developed the GradNation Action Platform to increase focus on the action areas demonstrated to improve high school graduation outcomes:

  • Use high quality data to monitor cohort progress, identify struggling students, inform effective interventions, and provide accountability for overall progress.
  • Respond to the non-academic factors that influence school participation and performance.
  • Improve school climate by promoting a sense of caring and connection between students and in-school staff through disciplinary practices and policies that are inclusive and ensure students stay in school through to graduation.
  • Increase the number and quality of caring adult relationships in students’ lives.
  • Re-engage young people who have left school by providing accessible and effective options for completing high school prepared for success in college and/or career.
  • Connect the high school experience with pathways to postsecondary education, workforce readiness and participation, and overall adult success.

The Action Platform is rooted in the understanding that any community is likely to see gains when it (1) knows the challenges and barriers that young people face in pursuing graduation and (2) takes targeted action in one or more of the action areas. Deliberate, data-driven partnerships at the state and community levels over the last 10 years are already having a measurable impact on local graduation rates by employing a combination of strategies from the Action Platform. With continued resource support, these partnerships between community-based organizations and school districts will dramatically increase graduation rates based on student need and circumstances. 

How Graduation Rates Reflect the Condition of Youth in America
How does the increase in graduation rates signal the condition of youth overall in America?

While high school graduation rates may not tell the full story of the overall health of young people in America, it gives a good sense of how they are faring. The more young people with access to the Five Promises – caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to serve – the greater the chances young people will graduate from high school on time. As a major milestone in the life of a child, high school graduation is a leading indicator of how that young person will do later in life.  

A high school diploma is not an end goal but an important indicator on the path to adult success. In today's economy, a high school diploma doesn't guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost-certain failure. A high school diploma confers many other economic, societal, health, and civic engagement benefits that make graduating from high school a significant milestone in the life of a young person. Collectively, more kids graduating puts our county in a much better place economically. If the graduation rate increased to 90 percent for just one cohort of students, the country would see a $7.2 billion increase in annual earnings and a $1.1 billion increase in federal tax revenue. For more facts on why the diploma matters to individuals, communities and our nation, check out High School Graduation Facts.

To determine the real value of rising high school graduation rates in the wider societal context, it is important to look at how youth outcomes have changed across other indicators. As high school graduation rates have increased, the well-being of youth has improved in many other important ways. Children are healthier and more teens are making positive choices—teen pregnancy rates have dropped, as has the juvenile arrest rate. As a nation, we’ve demonstrated that progress is possible, and now we must push forward to help millions more young people get and stay on track to adult success.

All this being said, the country has more work to do if it is to improve outcomes for the five subgroups of young people who make up a disproportionate number of the remaining non-graduates: low-income students (who now account for more than half of the students in public schools), students of color, students with disabilities, English learners (now the fastest-growing student population in the country), and homeless students (more than 1.3 million public school students affected). Supporting these young people is how we reach a more equitable future. 

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: