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January 21, 2016

Not a half truth: High school graduation rates never higher

We’ve “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.”

— President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union speech

Last week President Obama boasted about the on-time high school graduation rate reaching an all-time high during his last State of the Union address. As with most claims the President made that night fact-checkers were ready to determine if data indeed backed up such a claim.  According to Politifact,President Obama only spoke a ‘Half-Truth’ when it came to high school graduation rates.

While Politifact provides valid and fairly solid reasoning for only giving the President a ‘Half-Truth’ rating, they themselves do not provide all the facts either. They did a great job pointing out why the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate cannot simply be compared to on-time graduation estimates prior to 2010. As they rightfully point out states have only been using a common graduation rate calculation in just the past 5 years. Politifact contends that for the President to have been completely truthful he should have stated the current graduation rate is at its highest level in 5 years– when states started using a common calculation for graduation rates. As they point out, prior to that each state had their own way of calculating graduations rates –where some were more accurate than others.

However, there were a number of researchers who developed calculations to estimate on-time graduation rates as well as a number of studies that followed a national sample of students throughout the their high school career. In fact, these rates went as far back as the 1950’s. Yet, none were as accurate as the common calculation currently being used by all 50 states.

But that doesn’t mean estimated graduation rates from years past should just be dismissed. Politifact even points out one such estimate called the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) developed by the U.S. Department of Education reached a high of 79 percent in 1970. Which, of course, is lower than the current 82 percent on-time graduation rate. However, Politifact stated “Yet because the current method for calculating rates is only 5 years old, it’s not clear that the 1970 rate, or even the subsequent ones, are comparable to current rates.”

Politifact is absolutely correct to point out this fact. There is a real question as to whether the AFGR or any other estimate is comparable to today’s graduation rate calculations. Yet, they likely didn’t know about Nobel Laureate James Heckman’s  and Paul A. LaFountaine’s  The American High Graduation Rate study that standardized high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2005. The study utilized a number of data points and statistical adjustments to provide a standardized and more accurate measure of the high school graduation rate. Over that time period, only in one year- 1972—did the graduation rate break the 80 percent mark.

It should be noted the AFGR rates closely matched the rates calculated by Heckman and LaFountaine which indicates the AFGR  is an accurate measure of graduation rates. Furthermore, the AFGR rates were also similar to current graduation rate calculations in 2010 through 2012. Taken together, this provides a consistent and accurate measure of on-time high school graduation rates from 1960 through 2014– the most recent year graduation rate data is available.

Since 2014’s 82 percent on-time graduation rate is comparable to years prior to 2010, it is fair to say graduation rates have never been higher. Can we say this with absolute certainly? No, but the same can be said for almost any national indicator whether it is the unemployment rate or the divorce rate, just to name a couple. However, based on the best available evidence the U.S. on-time high school graduation rate has never been higher. As such, the President was completely truthful in stating our high school graduation rates have hit new highs. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Graduation rates,High school — Tags: , , — Jim Hull @ 9:25 am





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