Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. high school graduation rate in 2018 reached a record high of 85.3%, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education. And the rate in seven states — Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — has reached 90% or higher.
  • The rest of the country, however, is “off track” to reach the goal of 90% for this year set by GradNation, a campaign led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Rates for black, Hispanic and Native American students, however, as well as for English learners, students with disabilities and those from low-income families still trail the average. 
  • The campaign’s leaders call for a “second act” to help more states and groups of students reach the goal. “Until we close the opportunity gaps for students of color, students from low-income families and other students facing the greatest challenges, we can never truly celebrate,” Deborah Delisle, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said in a press release.

Dive Insight:

Uncertainty now hangs over the remainder of the school year due to school closings and remote learning arrangements — what Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, calls “a vast experiment that we’ve never done before.” Regardless of how smooth the transition to online learning is for this year’s seniors, COVID-19 is likely to impact the 2020 graduating class, and possibly those that follow. 

Apart from that unexpected reality, rising graduation rates have prompted researchers to take a deeper look at whether more students are actually meeting high standards or whether the positive trends are an illusion.

“The national high school graduation rate has been increasing annually since 2011, setting new records each year, but other measures of high school graduates’ academic preparation have not seen corresponding gains,” Marie O’Hara, the director of research at Achieve, wrote in a recent paper. As examples, she cites performance on state high school assessments and 12th grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained flat or declined. 

But also in a recent paper, Douglas Harris, a senior fellow for the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, writes that increasing graduation rates are not a “mirage” and accountability systems “produced some real and important knowledge and skills for students.” He notes that, as a result of accountability pressures, more students enrolled in credit recovery programs, which sometimes only require students to pass a test. But the increase in students enrolled in those programs does not fully explain rising graduation rates. 

“The public is right to be worried about sudden changes in performance metrics when they become high-stakes,” he writes, but adds the public can also “swing too far in the other direction” and dismiss signs of progress.

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