“We’ve got to be real about what the barriers are to success for students,” said John Gomperts, president and CEO of the America’s Promise Alliance. “People who don’t graduate are most often dealing with very serious challenges, whether it’s housing insecurity or homelessness, whether it’s health and safety, whether it’s violence, whether it’s trauma, kids are dealing with some pretty serious stuff, and in order to help those kids succeed, we have to help them with those things.”
The alliance is one of four sponsors of the GradNation campaign, which on Wednesday issued a report analyzing federal graduation data from the 2014–15 school year. Those numbers were released in October and lauded by then-President Barack Obama as a victory for his education priorities. But despite the record graduation rate, gains were off pace for the second year in a row for meeting the campaign’s goal, according to the report, which was produced by the alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The report comes at a moment of heightened skepticism around the validity of graduation rate data, driven by recent measurement errors and attempts to game the system. Additionally, attention has focused recently on the value of a high school diploma.
For the first time, the GradNation report, in its eighth year, addressed both these issues head-on.
Recent graduation rate blunders include revelations from Alabama and Tennessee that diplomas were awarded to students who didn’t meet state requirements. In Los Angeles, as the graduation rate continues to climb, recent data show that more than half of last year’s graduating seniors are ineligible for admission at the state’s public universities. There’ve been additional reports about districts attempting to game the system by relying on low-quality credit recovery programs, lowering the bar to receive a diploma, and pushing at-risk students into alternative programs or homeschooling.
While these are areas that require “careful monitoring,” according to the report, these incidents were not significant enough to alter the national graduation rate.
“When you have accountability measures in place, there are going to be people who do the wrong thing, and sometimes it’s not even the wrong thing, it’s just simple human error,” said Jennifer DePaoli, a senior research and policy adviser at Civic Enterprises who wrote the report. “We know that when you look at that big number at the national level, it’s pretty accurate even if things are happening in isolated places across the country.”
At the same time, attention has focused on the value of a high school diploma. While 59 percent of jobs require some postsecondary degree, the report noted, that will jump to 65 percent by 2020. But in defending the value of graduation rates, Gomperts said the numbers are best used as a “negative proxy.” While students who are not ready for college or career do often graduate, he said, it’s impossible for a high school dropout to remain on track.
During the Obama administration, then–Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the graduation rate goal central to his agenda. A year after he left Washington, America’s all-time high graduation rate was “one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said in an interview with The 74 last month. He noted, however, that more progress is needed. “This is not a ‘mission accomplished’ moment,” he said.
“For me, there’s nothing Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. It’s just about nation building,” Duncan said. “When we graduate more kids from high school, that’s great for the nation. When kids drop out, they’re basically condemned to poverty and social failure.”
It is unclear whether the Trump administration will place a similar emphasis on rising graduation rates, DePaoli said. Last month, after Congress eliminated equity regulations from the Every Student Succeeds Act, GradNation released a letter calling on states to use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate to identify low-performing schools.
If America wants to reach a 90 percent graduation rate, a sharp focus on minority students is paramount, according to the report. While 90.2 percent of Asian students and 87.6 percent of white students graduated in 2015, performance lagged among black and Hispanic students, those with disabilities, those from low-income families, and English language learners.
While 48.2 percent of students come from low-income families, the gap between poor children and their affluent peers stands at 13.7 percentage points. Additionally, 33 states reported graduation rates for students with disabilities below 70 percent, while four states — South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada — graduated fewer than half of their students with special needs.
Despite the disparities, DePaoli noted that subgroups with the lowest historical graduation rates also saw the biggest gains. Since 2011, the graduation rate increased by 7.6 points for black students and 6.8 points for Hispanic students. The graduation rate for black students has increased by roughly 1.5 percentage points per year since 2011, and 1.36 points for Hispanic students. White students, however, have seen an annual gain of 0.72 percentage points over the same period.
“They’re still below the national average, and they’re still below their Asian peers and their white peers, so they still have some way to go,” DePaoli said. “But we see really positive progress there.”