Is the U.S. Graduation Rate on Track to Reach 90 Percent?

graduationThe high school graduation rate hit a record high of 81.4% in 2013, according to GradNation, a national dropout prevention program that seeks to raise the national on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020 and increase postsecondary enrollment and completion. For the third year in a row, the nation remained on pace to meet that goal.

The 2015 Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic report is co-authored by Civic Enterprises; the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The report’s authors attribute the dramatic improvements in the graduation rate to different reforms and collaborative, targeted dropout prevention efforts at state, district and school levels, rather than broad national economic, demographic, and social trends.

“Just as there is no single reason for young people leaving school before graduating, there is no single reason for the broad increase in graduation rates,” says John Gomperts, president & CEO of America’s Promise Alliance.  “What we have observed is that action starts with awareness of the problem, and data is absolutely critical for that.  Then bringing together all of the key players – inside and outside of schools – to collaborate on resolving the problem.”

Gomperts says the communities that have significantly raised graduation rates have identified the specific drivers of students failing to complete school and devised and implemented a plan to meet the challenge.

The report identifies five drivers of the drop-out crisis.

The first is being from a low income community.  Graduating on time is the norm for middle- and high-income students, but not for their low-income peers. Low-income students graduate at a rate 15 percentage points behind their more affluent peers

With low-income students now a majority in America’s public schools and income inequality and concentrated poverty on the rise in our neighborhoods and schools, the authors advise the nation to redouble efforts to close the opportunity gap and ensure these students have the resources and supports they need to stay on track to graduation.

The second driver is being a minority student. The graduation gap is narrowing since 2006, graduation rates for students of color have significantly improved, with a 15-percentage point gain for Hispanic/Latino students, and a 9-percentage point gain for African American students – but a significant gap remains.

Five states collectively educate more than one-third of the nation’s African American high school students. However, four out of these five still have graduation rates for Black students in the 60s.

According to the report, 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.

Enrollment of students of color is growing rapidly across the country. It is essential that states focus on improving graduation rates for these increasingly majority populations, the authors state.

The third driver is students with disabilities. The graduation rate for students with disabilities hit 61.9 percent in 2012-13, an increase of 2.9 percentage points since 2010-11, but still nearly 20 points behind the national average.

Different states have different special education guidelines, which contribute to the disparities keeping special education students from reaching their full potential, the authors found. Chronic, negative misperceptions and disciplinary disproportionalities add to the challenge of keeping these students in school and on track to graduate.   But there is hope. It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of special education students can meet regular diploma requirements with the right supports.

Driver four is living in a big city or attending school in a big district. The nation’s larger districts must manage enormous complexities, from student composition and population shifts to state regulations and funding. Students can easily slip through the cracks, but despite the challenges, the study’s authors found that substantial progress is being made and continued improvement in these districts is possible.

The fifth driver is residing in a big state.  Fifty-five percent of America’s public high school students live in just 10 states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia and North Carolina. These states are home to nearly 8.5 million of the nation’s 14.7 million public high school students. The more students, the higher the dropout rate.

As these big states seek to raise graduation rates for their students, many are putting innovative policies and programs in place – for example, the use of data to identify and provide supports to struggling students, the remodeling of school funding streams to allocate more resources to high-needs communities, and a focus on rigorous academics through early college programs and investment in professional development for teachers and staff.

To meet the goal of a 90 percent U.S. graduation rate in 2020, the authors say the nation will need to double down on its efforts to increase graduation rate outcomes for low-income, minority, and special education students, and continue driving progress in big states and large school districts, where the majority of the country’s student population resides.

It’s also important to note that the challenge of high school graduation cannot be fixed in a minute or a year.  Communities and educators have to stay focused on working the problem over time to make a real and lasting impact.”

The GradNation report includes policy recommendations for change at the local, state and federal level, including:

  • Eradicate zero-tolerance discipline policies since students who are expelled or suspended become far more likely to drop out of school completely.
  • Expand the use of early-warning indicators so educators can intervene at the earliest and most critical times to help students succeed.
  • Make state funding more equitable so low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.
  • Establish a standard diploma that is available to all students, which limits exit options that prematurely take students with disabilities off track to graduating on time with a standard diploma.
  • Increase the use of consistent and comparable data that holds states accountable for graduation rates as an important and necessary measurement tool for determining where the challenges exist.

What can educators do to help?

“First we recognize that the solution to the problems that young people face will not solely be solved by what happens in the school building,” explains Gomperts. “There are many other factors that prevent young people from graduating on time. However, what we know has helped are holding all kids to high expectations, and providing genuine and consistent support and ongoing comprehensive resources that are crucial to their development.  The more of this level of support young people receive throughout their childhood the more likely they are to thrive.”