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A Spike in U.S. High School Graduation Rates

Updated on December 26, 2015

Declining United States graduation rates have been a source of consternation over the past couple of decades. Recently, however, the graduation rate for high schoolers has risen slightly above 82% for year 2014. As with any set of statistics, more lies beneath the surface.


A campaign composed of John Hopkins University, Civic Enterprises, America's Promise, and the Alliance for excellent education have a year 2020 goal of achieving a 90% national graduation rate. As we continue careening towards that year 2020 mark, 82% falls significantly short of the goalpost.


One Rule for All

A good start is that in the year 2010, all U.S. governors agreed to use the same formula to calculate their State's graduation rate, known as the cohort graduation rate. for example, in Clayton County in Georgia, the switch over to the new unified calculation approach resulted in a drop from an 80% rate to a 52% graduation rate after officials in Atlanta began using the new method.


Previously, it was difficult to make accurate comparisons between State graduation rates, but with the advent of the cohort graduation rate, it will now be possible . There are, of course, still instances where states are gaming the system by moving lower performing kids out of traditional classrooms to give the appearance of higher performing classrooms.


Cheating the System

For example, Chicago came under criticism after Becky Vevea of radio station WBEZ Chicago in conjunction with project Catalyst Chicago discovered that the supposed increase in Chicago’s graduation rate was the result of a great deal of mislabeling. Students who had dropped out, had transferred to alternative programs, or had attempted to pass the GED had been mislabeled as newly enrolled in private schools, or had been categorized as having moved out of the district. The mislabeling was on such a scale that it created a three-point rise in Chicago’s graduation rate.


Solutions and Looking Down the Road

Aside from standardizing the calculation of graduation rates, more effort has been put towards programs that reduce the number of dropouts. For example, in New York City a new program targeting truancy by increasing school attendance rates has been tied to an increase in graduation rates. In Chicago, a program specifically aimed at 9th graders at risk of dropping out has been effective at instilling those students with skills needed to continue along the long course towards high school graduation.


A GradNation report found that the uptick in graduation rates is attributable to disparate national school-based interventions, some of which we will touch on in this reading. The greatest rise in graduation rates has been coming from black and Hispanic students - but their graduation rates still trail those that of the Asian and white peers.


A factor worth mentioning is the drastic reduction in chronically failed high schools otherwise known as dropout factories. The number of such schools has been halved over the past decade. Techniques used to deal with chronically bad schools include sending the student body to different schools with better support systems, and dividing schools into several smaller schools so that the numbers are more manageable. The latter is a technique used quite effectively in New York City.


Another factor mentioned in the discussion of the uptick in graduation rates is the changing in graduation requirements. Some states have actually reduced the number of higher level math classes necessary to satisfy graduation requirements. Texas for example allows students to opt for vocational classes in place of advanced math classes. This on the heels of studies that show that students fare better when they perceive a relevance between classes they're taking, and the career that they have in mind which would - in this case - bevocational.


Some readers might wonder why all the hoopla about graduation rates when the value of a high school diploma is next to nil these days. The issue is what happens after high school. High school dropouts find it very difficult to get postsecondary education. Graduation rates are also a marker for industries deciding where they should set up shop and create an economic boost. A poorly educated workforce is not a good calling card when courting industry. This focus on high school graduation is really about postsecondary education.


Oregon has taken this news to heart. With the fourth lowest graduation rate in the nation, governor Kate Brown has created the position of education innovation officer. The hope is that this redoubling of effort will create a boost to lift the 72% graduation rate of the state. At the center of Oregon's issue is the epidemic of school absenteeism. Absenteeism has been a big factor weighing down graduation rates.


Interestingly enough, states with above average high school graduation rates sometimes have below average college completion rates.


Texas for example has an 88% high school graduation rate, but a 52% public university graduation rate, contrasted against a 57% average for the nation. A place like Washington DC with very low high school graduation rates does so well because it is a magnet for extraordinarily educated workers from across the nation, even the world. Most times things don't work that way. Usually, a very low high school graduation rate denotes a poorly educated workforce and creates a disincentive for educated workers to move there and certainly for industry to consider locating there.


The GradNation campaign sees the shutting down of failing schools and moving the students to smaller schools as a big part of the solution to the graduation rate problem, going forward.


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    • Vito Ren profile image
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      Vito Ren 20 months ago

      Hi! There are multiple ways to look at the cracking down. In this day and age of school accountability some administrators find it advantageous to boost their performance numbers by engaging in trimming. This means that students that make the school's statistics look bad will be ejected - it's similar to what is happening to a lot of charter schools - you will note that Hillary Clinton came under fire recently for commenting on that recently.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 20 months ago from Bend, OR

      Interesting. Since I live in Oregon, I'm curious why we have such a low graduation rate and high absenteeism. I've never read anything that explains why it's the case. I have a son in high school and another in middle school. Their schools have really cracked down on kids who miss school, cut classes, or are tardy.