However, last week NPR ran a serious of reports questioning whether indeed 8 out 10 9th graders graduate four years later. They even stated “… this number should be taken with a grain of salt.”
Why is NPR so skeptical of the 81 percent on-time graduation rate? Well, it is because they uncovered possible loopholes in some states that could be used to bolster graduation rates without in fact preparing more students for college and career success. For example, NPR points out:
- At-risk students are transferring to less rigorous alternative schools or entering credit recovery programs.
- Schools are pushing out at-risk students to alternative schools so if the student drops out, it doesn’t count against the original school’s graduation rate.
- Schools are misidentifying a dropout as a transfer, for example, recording a student as a transfer to a private school even though they actually dropped out.
- Districts are creating multiple pathways to a diploma to make it easier to graduate.
While these are all loopholes that are should be exposed, it is unlikely they had much impact on the overall national on-time graduation rate. It’s not to say that these practices aren’t a problem. In fact, NPR reporters did an exemplary job highlighting examples where these loopholes were taken full advantage of. However, none of the NPR reports provide data on the impact on the national graduation rate.
This is not a criticism of NPR’s reporting as they are journalists not researchers. With that said, here are reasons why the graduation rate is still a number worth celebrating and believing:
- While credit recovery is a growing trend in education and their benefits are still in question, only a small portion of graduates actually ever enrolled in such programs.
- The U.S. Dept. of Education has very specific rules on when a student can be counted as a transfer and which school gets credit if they graduate. Yet, no matter which school is responsible for push outs to alternative programs, it would have no impact on the national on-time graduation rates as those students are included in calculating the national rate, too. As such, push outs would only impact individual schools’ rates but not the national.
- States have little flexibility on whether to identify a student who stops attending a school as a dropout or a transfer. In fact, states are required to verify with “official documentation” that a student enrolled in another school before they can be listed as a transfer. If it cannot be verified, the student must be identified as a dropout. However, as NPR noted different states have different requirements for what documentation is needed to verify transfers to home schooling and those students who may have left the country.
- While it is true a number of states offer multiple types of diplomas, as NPR noted, for a student to count as a graduate they must have earned a standard high school diploma, or higher. Meaning, they must have earned a diploma whose requirements aligned with the states standards. Students who earned GEDs, Certificates of Attendance, IEP diplomas or otherwise modified diplomas are not counted as on-time graduates. Again, it is important to point out that different states have different requirements for earning a standard high school diploma. Simply offing multiple diploma levels does not necessarily lower the bar to earning a diploma. It just provides an opportunity to recognize those students who completed requirements above those aligned to the state standards.
The U.S. Department of Education has put in place a number of safeguards to close most loopholes. However, as NPR discovered some schools still may be exploiting the few small loopholes that remain. Yet, what their reporting doesn’t state explicitly is that their exploitation is likely the exception with little impact on the overall national graduation rate.
What is also important to point out is that prior to NCLB it was more of the rule that schools and states were taking advantage of similar loopholes when reporting graduation rates. Hence, the strict rules from the Department of Education for calculating a more accurate graduation rate. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the 81 percent rate is simply an on-time graduation rate and does not include those students who took more than four years to complete the standard diploma requirements. According to my report Better Late Than Never including late high school graduates would likely increase the national graduation rate by about 5 percentage point to about 86 percent.
It certainly can be argued that just because our schools are graduating 86 percent of students who enter high schools doesn’t mean that 86 percent of students leave college and career ready. As our report Out of Sync found most states that have adopted the Common Core have not aligned their graduation requirements to the college and career readiness standards of the Common Core. Even so, with only a few exceptions, states are now requiring more from students to obtain a standard high school diploma than when graduation rates were floundering two decades ago. So while there is more work to be done, it is nearly indisputable that more students are completing high school with more skills than any other time in our nation’s history. – Jim Hull