Secretary Duncan proudly wore number 80 on his jersey at the NBA celebrity All-Star game this past weekend— as well he should’ve. It just so happens the number 80 represents one of the best kept secrets in education: our national on-time graduation rate.
This may come as a shock to many as popular perception tends to be the myth that our public schools are flatlining. But the facts show otherwise, as recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics show our national on-time graduation rate for our public high schools now stands at 80 percent— an all-time high. It’s quite an accomplishment considering the rate hovered around 71 percent for much of the 1990s.
And keep in mind, the 80 percent graduation rate represents only those students who earned a standard high school diploma within four years of entering high school so it doesn’t include students who earned a high school equivalency (ex GED) or certificates of completion. Nor does it include those students who took more than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As our report on late high school graduates Better Late Than Never found, including late high school graduates would likely add more than 5 percentage points to the national graduation rate. So the actual national graduation rate is quite likely closer to 90 than 80 percent.
What is even more impressive about these gains is that our high schools are serving an ever more diverse student population. Yet the overall graduation rate increased due to the substantial gains made by minority students. The on-time graduation rate for Hispanic students increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2011. During this same time period the on-time graduation rate for black students improved from 61 percent to 67 percent. These are tremendous gains made in a relatively short amount of time. Let’s not overlook the fact that the graduation rate also continued to climb for white students during this same time period (81 to 84 percent).
While these are numbers worth celebrating they also show there is much more work to be done. The attainment gap between minority and white students needs to be closed. While they have narrowed in recent years, the narrowing needs to accelerate so minority students who are just entering school now will have the same chance to graduate as their white classmates.
Of course, simply giving students a diploma will not help them get a job or get into college. So, the diplomas they do receive must represent that fact that these students have completed courses they need to get into and succeed in college or get a quality job after high school. While there is more work to be done to ensure all students leave college and career ready, the data clearly shows our public schools are up the challenge. – Jim Hull