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The Highs and Lows of High School Graduation Rates

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Amid the excitement over the news this week that the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit 80 percent for the first time, some important questions still need to be answered. Among them: What are the states that saw the largest gains doing right, and how can the momentum be ramped up to make sure more minority, special education, and low-income students earn their diplomas?

The 80 percent milestone — based on an analysis of 2012 data  — is certainly encouraging, but it needs to be considered in context of the bigger picture. Large gaps in achievement remain. For example, the graduation rates for some students of color remain much lower than those of their white and Asian-American peers, even though progress has been made. Two years ago, 69 percent of black students graduated, compared with 73 percent of Hispanics, 86 percent of whites and 88 percent of Asian Americans. There are also sizeable achievement gaps by socioeconomic, special education and English language learner status – all subgroups of students who typically struggle academically.

So why does this matter? We now know that a high school diploma is the bare minimum for even marginal employment. That means for students who fail to graduate, their achievement gap quickly becomes an opportunity gap that will persist long after their classmates have walked the stage. In fact, it’s a gap they likely will struggle with for the rest of their adult lives. That’s one of the reasons why a coalition of national organizations has set a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 – a goal that is increasingly looking within reach.

new report from the America’s Promise Alliance, based on the 2012 graduation data, singles out Hawaii, Indiana and Texas for praise. The report also points to some cities with high populations of low-income students that still have comparatively high graduation rates. Among them are Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; Houston; and Miami-Dade County, Fla. Portland, Me. is also on the list. But when you look at big cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis, where there are large percentages of students from low-income families, barely half of the students completed high school.

Here’s another way to consider the numbers. Nationally, 718,000 students who could have been in the class of 2012 failed to graduate. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, accounts for 27,000 of those young adults. That’s just a little less than the entire high school population of the state of Vermont in the same year. But I’d argue even those losses are also relative. It’s just as devastating to a community like East Baton Rouge, La., to have 904 students not earn their diplomas in 2012. Or Detroit, with 2,057. Or Cleveland, with 1,369 missing graduates. Or even New Orleans, which lost 240.

To be sure, one of the challenges to school improvement can be pinpointing which initiatives are responsible for successes. In the case of graduation rates, that’s an especially fluid concept. Did more students graduate in 2012 because of relatively late-stage remedial efforts at the high school level? Or is this the result of middle school interventions bearing fruit? Where are statewide policies actually making a difference?

New Hampshire’s graduation rate is among the nation’s highest at 86 percent, and Anne Grassie, a state representative and former member of the Rochester School Board, told the Associated Press that’s due to a combination of factors, including the decision in 2007 to raise the minimum dropout age to 18 from 17, compelling more students to stick with school. She also noted that Rochester’s students can now make up missing coursework online and throughout the regular academic year – a faster option than the traditional summer school route.

A critical factor in the improving graduation rate is that states have been shutting down the failing high schools that Education Secretary Arne Duncan famously labeled “dropout factories.” At some campuses, the problems were so entrenched that it made more sense to close the doors and start fresh. According to researchers,  “dropout factories” have declined 47 percent over the past decade. Over the same period, 1.7 million more students earned diplomas than would have been the result if the graduation rate had stayed the same.

Another question that’s being asked (Stephanie Simon raises it as well, in her piece for Politico) is whether the graduation rate is also inching up because some states have been lowering the bar for earning a diploma.

“Overall it got harder to graduate from high school over than the past decade, not easier. More states added exams, more credit requirements and raised the bar,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and one of the lead researchers on the new report.

(Balfanz added one caveat: The data are from 2012, and don’t reflect changes in graduation requirements put in place in the past two years in response to the shift to the new Common Core State Standards, adopted by 45 states.)

Some states – including Texas – have adjusted the minimum requirements for a high school diploma, allowing students to swap out some higher level math and science courses in favor of vocational classes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there’s plenty of research indicating that giving kids more options to pursue their interests is one of the best ways to improve their motivation to stay in school.

Balfanz pointed to New York City and Chicago – the nation’s largest and third-largest school districts, respectively – as examples of where aggressive efforts yielded double-digit gains in the graduation rates. In New York City, the emphasis was on converting failing campuses into smaller schools, building them a grade at a time, and tailoring them to the needs of students coming from high-poverty neighborhoods. In Chicago, the district focused on improving academic outcomes for ninth graders and keeping them on track to graduate on time as they advanced in grade. (I wrote here about New York City’s initiative to crack down on absenteeism. And for more on the Windy City’s approach, check out the new report from the Chicago Consortium for School Research.)

“In both New York and Chicago their bets paid off; they both had double-digit gains in their graduation rates,” Balfanz said. “But the truth is they both should have done both of those things (remaking schools and focusing on ninth graders). I wonder how much growth they would have seen if they had doubled down?”

Balfanz said if you look closely at the states making the biggest gains in graduation rates, a clear pattern emerges.

“There’s some combination of someone saying ‘We have to change this,’ followed by building capacity and bringing in funding for those solutions,” Balfanz said. “It’s not just exaltations to do better. They put people and resources behind it.”