Good news, folks — this year marks the fourth consecutive year that the United States’ high school graduation rates have improved, with completion rates reaching an all-time high of 82% in the 2013-2014 school year, according to an announcement from the Department of Education.
Anya Kamenetz of NPR reports that achievement gaps have narrowed as well. Graduation rates ranged from 89% for Asian/Pacific Islanders to 62.6% for English-Language Learners.
Since five years ago, states have adopted a uniform tracking system and growth in graduation rates has grown steadily. The encouraging news comes at the same time that performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as the Nation’s Report Card) has fallen. Scores on the SAT have also dropped.
The NPR team reported earlier this year that the rising graduation rates certainly reflect genuine improvement in some cases, but that there are dubious strategies that conceal problems that continue to plague US school achievement. These strategies include early warning systems, increased support, multiple diploma tracks, second chances, and sometimes the possible manipulation of statistics.
Last week the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act made graduation rates compulsory as part of state accountability formulas. States are also required to pay close attention to schools perpetually-underperforming schools in which 66% or lower of students are graduating.
GradNation, a coalition of organizations working toward pushing the US graduation rates to 90% by 2020, did note that this week’s announced improvement was not quite the pace needed to stay on track for the 90% goal.
NPR examined the numbers used in the announcement this week, finding that graduation rates did not exceed 50% until 1940. They reached their highest point at the end of the 1960s, but began to drop between 1995 and 1999. One constant was that racial and ethnic minorities trailed behind.
The year the No Child Left Behind Act came into being was when the federal government got involved. Work by Elaine Allensworth at the University of Chicago identified the early warning ABCs: Attendance, Behavior, and Course Performance, which was a reliable predictor of graduation as early as by the time a student entered his freshman year.
But in the early 2000s states could report graduation rates in any way they saw fit. In 2005, the National Governor’s Association created a task force, made up of members of the American Federation of Teachers and the Business Roundtable, select governors, and top-level researchers, to find a way to report graduation rates in a unified way.
The task force had the states adopt what was known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). This formula, first used in 2008, used the number of graduates in a given year divided by the number of students who enrolled in the school four years earlier. The states saw that it all came down to raising academic standards and broadening access.
Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the newly released numbers, he also said too many students still are not graduating, according to Jennifer C. Kerr of the Associated Press.
In 2013-2014, 72% of black students and 76% of Hispanic students earned diplomas compared to 87% of white students. Students with disabilities graduated at a rate of 63%. But black students made the largest gains by raising their rate by 5.6 percentage points since 2010-2011.
“For the first time in four years, the country is not on track to reach the national goal of a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by 2020, missing by just a few tenths of a percent,” said a statement from the four organizations leading the GradNation campaign — the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. “The last leg of this campaign will be very challenging and … we must redouble efforts to reach our goal.”
The state with the highest number of graduating students was Iowa at 90%; the lowest was the District of Columbia with a 61% graduation rate.