The GradNation campaign’s sixth annual update on the progress and challenges in increasing high school graduation rates shows that the country hit a record high of 81.4 percent in 2013, based on the most recent comprehensive data available from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
As a result of progress made over the last decade, 1.8 million additional students have graduated from high school. To reach 90 percent, the graduating class of 2020 will need to have 310,000 more graduates than the Class of 2013.
“We are making progress in increasing graduation rates not because of broad demographic and economic trends, but because the leaders of schools, districts, communities and states are working hard to drive change,” said Robert Balfanz, research scientist and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the John Hopkins School of Education. “Now in the third quarter of our 20-year campaign, we are seeing that big progress is possible, even in challenged districts and states.”
At the state level, progress was driven by significant gains in some of the 10 largest states, including California, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. But future gains are threatened by declining or stagnating graduation rates in New York, Illinois, Washington and Arizona, which together educate 15 percent of the nation’s high school students.
New analysis of district-level data shows that some districts are making tremendous progress while others are lagging or even going backwards. Much of the recent gain has been driven by one-quarter of the nation’s 500 largest school districts (districts that educate 15,000 or more students) which have been able to rapidly improve their graduation rates. Between 2011 and 2013, 124 of the 500 largest districts saw improvement of more than three times the national average. The majority of the students in these districts were students of color and low-income.
Low-income students. New data and analysis in the report show that the national graduation rate for middle/high-income students is at 88.2 percent, almost 15 percentage points higher than the rate for low income students. The half of the student population that is middle or high income is very close to reaching the 90 percent goal, while the half that is low-income is still far away. In 16 states, 90 percent of middle/high-income students already graduate; in 11 states less than 70 percent of low-income students graduate.
Some states and districts have been able to close or almost eliminate the “opportunity gap” - a term that
describes large disparities in access to resources, services, and experiences for low-income children. Kentucky stands out as a beacon to all other states. Its graduation rate for low-income students is 85 percent, nearly identical to its graduation rate for middle/high-income students and well above the national average for all students. Connecticut, which led the nation in closing the opportunity gap between 2011 and 2013 with a 6-point decline, shows that rapid improvement is possible, through concentrated effort. The gap between graduation rates for low-income and middle/high-income students narrowed in 28 states, but got larger in 18, with North Dakota seeing the largest increase of 7.6 percentage points.
“In America, education has always been seen as the pathway out of poverty, but the research in this report shows that that is not yet true enough in all locales,” said Alma J. Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance. “We have to make it true. We have to do everything possible – inside and outside of our schools – to make the promise of America real for every child.”
Students of Color. Nationally, Hispanic/Latino and African American students are starting to close the graduation gap with their white peers. Hispanic/Latino students—the fastest growing population of students—have made the greatest gains in the Adjusted Cohort Graduating Rate* reporting data, improving 4.2 percentage points to 75.2 percent in 2013. African American students have risen 3.7 percentage points, from 67 percent in 2011 to 70.7 percent in 2013.
Seven states – Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California and Illinois – educate about 40 percent of the nation’s African American students. All of these states either have graduation rates in the 60s for African American students, or have recently experienced significant declines. Unless these states start to experience significant improvements, the recent progress made in raising African American graduation rates will stall.
One reason for the national improvement in graduation rates among students of color is there are now fewer high schools with low graduation rates, often referred to as “dropout factories.” While there were 2,000 such schools in 2002, there were fewer than 1,200 of these schools nationwide and 1.5 million fewer students attending them in 2013. The most recent data indicates an acceleration in this improvement. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of low-graduation-rate high schools declined by more than 200.
Roadblocks to graduation for students of color include: “toxic stress” from living in high-poverty neighborhoods; a rise in exclusionary discipline practices, particularly in secondary schools; disparities in academic opportunities, such as access to challenging classes and coursework that will help to prepare students for college and career; as well as lack of support for English Language Learners.
Students with disabilities. Students with disabilities graduating on time reached 61.9 percent in 2012-13, compared to the 84.1 percent national graduation rate for general population students. This is an increase of 2.9 percentage points since 2010-11, but almost 20 points behind the national average. Estimates show that the graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and students in the general population ranges widely across states from 3.3 percentage points to 58.8 points. State variations of ACGR data, coupled with variation in state allowances for special education guidelines, contribute to the disparities keeping special education students from reaching their full potential.
Recommendations. The report includes recommendations for how federal, state and district policymakers can help more students graduate from high school, such as:
- Eradicate zero-tolerance discipline policies. The number of secondary school students suspended or expelled from school has increased by 40 percent, rising from one in 13 in 1972-73 to one in nine in 2009-10. Often these offenses are non-violent crimes such as truancy, dress code violations, or acting out in class. These students have increasingly been students of color or special education students. Students who are expelled or suspended become far more likely to not graduate on-time.
- Expand the use of early-warning indicators so educators can intervene at the earliest and most critical times to help students succeed. Train educators to gather, interpret and use data to improve student outcomes.
- Make state funding more equitable so low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.
- Limit alternative exit options for special education students. States should establish a standard diploma that is available to all students, and limit exit options that prematurely take students with disabilities off track to graduating on time with a standard diploma.
- Increase use of consistent and comparable data to hold states accountable. As noted in the coalition letter sent to Congress earlier this year by the leaders of the GradNation campaign, holding states accountable for graduation rates remains an important and necessary measurement tool for determining where the challenges exist.
Authors and funders. The 2015 Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic report is co-authored by John Bridgeland, Jennifer DePaoli and Erin Ingram of Civic Enterprises and Robert Balfanz, Joanna Hornig Fox and Mary Maushard at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with John Gomperts and his team at America’s Promise and Bob Wise and his team at the Alliance for Excellent Education. The 2015 report is presented by lead sponsor AT&T, with supporting sponsorship from Target.
Full report. A copy of the 2015 report, including state and subgroup numbers, as well as graphics from the report are available online at: www.GradNation.org/GradReport. The GradNation campaign, led by America’s Promise, seeks to raise the national on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020 and increase postsecondary enrollment and completion.
*The ACGR or Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate is a newer metric now used by all states and school districts for tracking a group (or cohort) of students who enter high school together, as first-time ninth graders (or tenth graders) and graduate on-time with a regular diploma.
America’s Promise leads an alliance of organizations, communities and individuals dedicated to making the promise of America real for every child. As its signature effort, the GradNation campaign mobilizes Americans to increase the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020 and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the 21st century workforce. www.AmericasPromise.org
Civic Enterprises is a public policy and strategy 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 Enterprises 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.civicenterprises.net
The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University 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
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