Last month the U.S. Department of Education released preliminary data showing the U.S. is on-track to set yet another record on-time high school graduation rate. While a preliminary national rate was not provided, the data showed that at least 36 states have increased their graduation rates over the previous year which reported an unprecedented 81 percent on-time rate nationally.
Another report was released yesterday by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Everyone Graduates Center showing the recent increase in on-time graduation has led to the number of high school dropouts to fall from 1 million in 2008 to 750,000 in 2012. Over the same time period the number of so-called ‘Drop Out Factories’– high schools that fail to graduate at least 60 percent of their students within four years—decreased from just over 1,800 to 1,040 schools. These are dramatic decreases in such a short amount of time by any measure. But these decreases are made even more impressive by the fact that between 2002 and 2008 the number of dropouts increased by over 25,000 while the number of ‘Drop-out Factories’ fell by less than 200.
More students may be graduating high school but does that necessarily mean more students are finishing high school with the skills they need to succeed in college or the workplace? This is the big question. If high schools are just handing out pieces of paper to any student who attends for four years, a higher graduation rate doesn’t mean much of anything. Yet, if more students are graduating college and career ready, then indeed the record graduation rate is something to celebrate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to determine how many students are graduating college and career ready, at least at the national level. Reason being, each state sets its own requirement for obtaining a high school diploma. In fact, a number of states set different requirements for different types of high school diplomas. A recent report from Achieve found 93 diploma options across all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the Class of 2014. The report noted that only 5 states (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) require their students to meet college and career ready standards in math and English Language Arts (ELA) to earn a high school diploma. Meaning, these are the only states whose graduation rates are the same as the percent of graduates who are college and career ready.
This doesn’t mean that other states don’t have college and career readiness requirements to earn a high school diploma. In fact, 26 other states offer at least one diploma aligned with college and career standards. However, these states also offer multiple diplomas where students may still graduate high school without meeting college and career ready expectations by either opting out of the college and career ready requirements or choosing not to opt in. Moreover, just 9 of these states publicly report the percentage of students earning college and career ready aligned diplomas. So only in 14 states do we know what percent of high school graduates finish high school ready for college or the workforce.
The lack of alignment between diploma requirements and college-career ready standards may lead some to conclude the recent rise in graduation rates is due to a lowering the bar to graduation. But that would be wrong. Achieve’s most recent annual Closing the Expectations Gap report shows the bar to a high school diploma has been raising in most states—not falling. In fact, when Achieve first started examining high school graduation requirements in 2004 not a single state aligned their graduation requirements to college and career standards, and only Arkansas and Texas required students to pass an advanced Algebra course to earn a high school diploma. Since that time a number of states have adopted similar requirements for high school diploma.
The good news, then, is that graduation rates are not increasing simply by giving out more diplomas, but by more students meeting more rigorous graduation requirements. The bad news is it is still unclear how many of those requirements are aligned with college and career standards. Knowing how many students complete high school college and career ready is vitally important for policymakers in order to make more informed decisions to ensure all students leave high school prepared for postsecondary success. – Jim Hull