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November 11, 2015

More students are graduating but are they leaving high school prepared?

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

October 19, 2015

State graduation rates continue to climb

Even though the high school Class of 2013 reached a record on-time graduation rate of 81 percent,  it appears like the Class of 2014 is poised to pass their classmates. According to preliminary data released this afternoon from the U.S. Department of Education, 36 states saw improvements in their on-time high school graduates rates over the past year. On the other hand, just six states saw a decrease in their graduation rates while in another eight states graduation rates remained unchanged.

Unfortunately, the national on-time graduation rate won’t be available until early next year once the National Center on Education Statistics validates each state’s graduation data. Yet, with these preliminary results showing nearly three-quarters of states continuing to graduate a greater proportion of students who entered 9th grade four years earlier, it is all but certain the national graduation rate will surpass last year’s record breaking 81 percent on-time graduation rate.

The good news doesn’t end there either. The preliminary results show that our high schools are narrowing the graduation gaps between their traditionally disadvantaged students and more advantaged peers as well. In fact, 28 states narrowed the graduation gap between their black and white students while 32 states narrowed their Hispanic/white gap. Moreover, 23 states have been able to narrow the graduation gap between their economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers as well as between Limited English Proficient students and their English Proficient peers. States haven’t been as successful in narrowing the graduation gap between their students with disabilities and those without but still 21 states were more successful in doing so this year than last.

These preliminary results certainly show many of our high schools are on the right track, yet, they also show there is a whole lot more work to be done. While graduating 8 out of 10 students who enter the 9th grade within four years is a tremendous accomplishment, there are still many more students who never graduate high school. Students who leave high school without a diploma are likely in for a rough road ahead as they are much more likely to be unemployed and earn significantly less in wages than their peers who graduated with a standard high school diploma.  And all signs point to the job market getting more difficult in the coming years for those without a high school diploma, so it is imperative that our high schools keep the momentum going until all students graduate high school with at least a standard high school diploma. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Achievement Gaps,Graduation rates,High school,Public education — Jim Hull @ 3:56 pm

October 9, 2015

Concern Over the High School Preparation of Non-College Goers

Parents, employers and students alike feel high schools are not adequately preparing their graduates for success in the workforce according to the results of a recent survey from Achieve. While more than 8 in 10 parents are at least somewhat satisfied with the job their child’s high school did preparing them for success after high school, high schools are not held in such high regard when it comes to preparing graduates for the workforce in particular.

In fact, fewer than half (45 percent) of parents of non-college goers feel high school prepared their child for the workforce. Moreover, just 56 percent of both non-college goers and employers feel high schools do at least a very good job preparing their graduates for the workforce. Although non-college goers and employers have a more positive view than parents on this question, a large portion of all three groups do not feel high schools are doing an adequate job.

Why is this the case? There is no clear answer but it could be that high schools are focusing more on preparing their students for college than the workforce. This is evident by the finding that high schools do a better job providing parents information on what courses their child needs to get into college than providing them information related to workforce preparation.

Parents may not feel high schools are doing an adequate job preparing non-college goers for the workforce because they feel their child isn’t taking the courses their child needs to have success in the workforce. In fact, a majority of parents believe requiring higher level math and science courses, such as Algebra 2 and biology, is needed to prepare their child, whether going to college or not. As my Path Least Taken II report found, these higher level math and science courses don’t just improve the chances a student will get into and succeed in college, they also increase the chances non-college goers will find success in the workforce. Unfortunately, few non-college goers complete such high-level courses according my original Path Least Taken report. On the other hand, the same report found that nearly all college-goers took them.

Maybe parents are onto something. If all students did in fact take high level math and science courses they would not only be prepared for college they would be prepared for the workforce as well. Of course, there is more to being college and career ready than completing Algebra 2 and biology but it is a big step towards ensuring all students graduate college and career ready. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Career Readiness,college,Course taking,CPE,High school,research — Jim Hull @ 10:27 am

September 3, 2015

Fewer High School Grads Ready for College According to Latest Recent SAT results

Just as last year, this year’s SAT results included results from the College Board’s two other testing programs— the PSAT/NMSQT and their Advanced Placement (AP) exams— providing a more complete picture of student progress towards college readiness throughout high school.

While ACT results released last week showed overall scores among the graduating class of 2015 remaining flat, SAT scores saw a significant drop. In fact, scores on the college-entrance exam are at the lowest level in the ten years since the College Board included a writing section to go along with the critical reading and mathematics sections. Not only have SAT scores been declining in the long-run, scores dropped by 7 points in just the past year alone. Making it the largest one-year drop since the inclusion of the writing section. Furthermore, scores dropped in each of the three sections as well.

Stark differences are also evident when it comes to the ACT and SAT college-readiness benchmarks. According to the ACT, slightly more students are graduating high school college-ready than in the previous year. Yet, SAT results show fewer students are graduating college-ready. Although each exam has their own method of determining college-readiness, it would be expected that the year-to-year changes would be somewhat similar. However, that is not the case for the 2015 results.

Since neither the ACT nor SAT are representative of all high school graduates nationwide it is impossible to pinpoint why the two tests are providing such conflicting information about the quality of our nation’s high schools. That is because in most states these tests are optional, so only those students expecting to go onto a four-year college are likely to take the exams. Furthermore, there are a number of students who take both the SAT and ACT, so their scores are counted twice which can impact scores as well. Furthermore, the ACT and SAT measure different skills, although in the coming years this will be less of an issue as the SAT will be redesigned to align with the Common Core which the ACT already is.

However, there can be a number of reasons why ACT and SAT are providing such conflicting reports. It could be that since the ACT has become more popular throughout the country and more colleges are accepting the ACT that fewer higher-performing students in traditional ACT states may be taking the SAT but still taking the ACT. It could also be that more lower-performing students, who previously would not have taken the SAT, are now taking the college-entrance exam which would lower SAT scores, at least the short-run.

Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer. But considering the fact that almost every other indicator of the effectiveness of our nation’s high schools points in a positive direction, we shouldn’t put too much weight on one indicator such as the SAT. We know that more students than ever are graduating on-time with a regular diploma and do so by having completed more rigorous courses. Moreover, more of these graduates are going on to college than ever before. Yet, despite these positive results this year’s SAT results paint a much dimmer picture. With that said, it will be important to keep our eyes on the SAT results in the coming years to see if this year’s results are an anomaly or the start of trend. In the meantime, educators, school board members, and other policymakers shouldn’t put too much stock in one year’s results but should dig deeper into the SAT results for their local schools to see what they can learn so they can better prepare future graduates to get into and succeed in college.—Jim Hull


The Findings

Overall SAT Scores

  • The combined score in each of the three SAT sections- Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing— were at a 10-year low of 1490 when the Writing section was first introduced.
  • The combined scored dropped 7 points in just one year. This is the largest drop in a single year since the Writing section was introduced.
  • Scores dropped in all three sections from 2014 to 2015.
    • Critical Reading declined from 497 to 495.
    • Mathematics scores fell from 513 to 511.
    • Writing scores dropped from 487 to 484.

College Readiness

  • Less than half (41.9 percent) of the test-takers met the SAT College-Ready Benchmark in 2015, which is a decrease from 2014 when the rate was 43 percent.
    • The SAT College-Ready Benchmarks represent a student who scores a combined 1550 or higher. Students hitting this benchmark have a 65 percent chance of earning a B-minus grade point average in their freshman year courses.
  • Minority students less likely to be college-ready.
    • Just 16.1 percent of black students and 22.7 percent of Hispanic students were college-ready, according to the SAT’s Benchmark.
      • More black students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 than in 2014 (15.8 percent).
      • However, fewer Hispanic students reached the college-ready benchmark in 2015 compared to 2014 (23.4 percent).
    • On the other hand, over half (52.8 percent) of white students met the benchmark in 2015 and 61.3 percent of Asian’s students.

SAT Test Takers

  • Just over 1.7 million students from the Class of 2015 took the SAT sometime during their high school which was a 3 percent increase from 2011.
  • More minority students taking the SAT.
    • Nearly a third (32.5 percent) of test-takers were underrepresented minorities in 2015, compared to 31.3 percent just a year earlier and 29 percent in 2011.

PSAT/MNSQT (10th grade exams) Results

  • Nearly 4 out of 10 10th graders who took the College Board’s PSAT or NMSQT exams in 2015 scored at the grade-level benchmark that indicates they were on track for college and career readiness.
  • Just 16.7 percent of black 10th graders who took the PSAT/NMSQT reached the grade-level benchmark in 2015 while 54.7 of white examinees did so.
  • Only 19.8 percent of Hispanic examinees met the grade-level benchmark while 61.5 of Asian examinees did so.


Advanced Placement (AP)

  • In 2015, 2.5 million students took at least one AP exam compared to 2.3 million a year earlier and 2.0 in 2011.
    • In total, 4.5 million AP exams were administered in 2015 compared to 4.2 million in 2014 and 3.5 million in 2011.
  • As more students took an AP exam more students passed an AP exam as well. The number of students scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam increased from 1.4 million in 2014 to 1.5 million in 2015. In 2011, just 1.2 million students passed at least one AP exam.
    • Minority students less likely to pass at least one AP exam.
      • A third (32.3 percent) of black students who took at least one AP exam scored a 3 or higher compared to 66 percent of white examinees.
      • Half of Hispanic examinees passed at least one AP exam.
      • Nearly three-quarters (72.2 percent) of Asian examinees scored 3 or higher on at least one AP exam.
  • Over a quarter (26.2) of students who took an AP exam were from an underrepresented minority group which is slightly higher than in 2014, when the percentage was 26.0 percent. However, it is a significant increase from the 23.9 percent in 2011.

August 27, 2015

More students graduating high school college-ready according to new ACT report

According to ACT’s The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015 report released earlier this week, a growing proportion of high school students are graduating from high school college-ready. While overall scores remained flat, more students scored high enough to reach the ACT college-ready benchmarks in each of the test’s four subject areas- English, reading, math, and science. However, just 28 percent of test-takers reached these benchmarks in 2015 but it is still higher than the 23 percent who reached all four benchmarks in 2009. So, while college-readiness rates remain low, they have been trending higher even as more states require all students to take the college entrance exam and more students head to college than ever before. Keep in mind, such dramatic increases in those being tested typically has a dampening effect on scores.

Unlike college-readiness benchmarks, overall scores remained flat between 2014 and 2015. In fact, overall scores have remained between 20.9 and 21.1 for over a decade, with the exception of 2007 when the overall score reached 21.2. However, a closer look at the overall results show that white, black, and Hispanic students all saw increases in their scores over the past year. So, while overall scores have remained flat, the scores of each of the subgroups have improved. This happens because more black and Hispanic students—who score significantly lower ‘on-average’- are taking the ACT while a smaller proportion of white students- who score higher ‘on-average’- are taking the test. As a result, each of the subgroups’ scores increased while the overall score remained flat. This is what statisticians call ‘Simpson’s Paradox’.

While the results are not earth shattering they provide evidence that our high schools are in fact doing a better job preparing students for college. Yes, we all want to see faster improvement but improving nearly 25,000 high schools does not happen overnight. Fortunately, most indicators of the effectiveness of our nation’s high schools show they are heading in the right direction. More students are graduating high school on-time than ever before and more students are getting into and enrolling in college as well. Add the fact that more high school graduates are college-ready paints a pretty clear picture that our nation’s high schools are on the right path.


The Findings

State Scores

  • Of the 30 states where at least half of graduates took the ACT:
    • Minnesota once again achieved the highest composite score with 22.7.
      • However, just 78 percent of Minnesota 2015 graduates took the ACT
    • Graduates from Hawaii posted the lowest scores among states with a score of 18.5.
  • Of the 15 states where at least 90 percent of graduates took the ACT:
    • Colorado and Illinois posted the highest scores at 20.7, followed by North Dakota (20.6).
    • Hawaii (18.5), Mississippi (19.0), and Alabama (19.1) had the lowest scores out of this group.
    • Hawaii posted the greatest gains since 2014, improving by three-tenths of a point.
      • Alabama saw their scores drop by 1.5 points over the past year. However, this is likely due to the fact that the percent of graduates taking the ACT increased from 80 to 100 percent. Such increases typically lead to lower-scores, at least in the short-term.

National Scores

  • The nation’s graduating Class of 2015 had an average composite score of 21.0, the same as in 2014.
    • At this score, an average high school graduate has about a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a good college.*
  • Scores increased by one-tenth of a point in reading (21.4), English (20.4) and science (20.9) between 2014 and 2015, while scores decreased by one-tenth of a point on the math test (20.8).
  • Scores for black and white students improved.
    • White graduates increased their scores by one-tenth of a point between 2014 and 2015 (22.3 to 22.4).
    • The average black graduate score improved from 17.0 to 17.1 over the past year.
    • As for Hispanic graduates, their scores increased from 18.8 to 18.9 in the past year as well.

College Readiness

  • Twenty-eight percent of 2015 high school graduates were college-ready in all four ACT subject tests (English, reading, math, and science), which is two percentage points higher than in 2014 and five percentage point increase since 2009.
    • Graduates who achieve these benchmarks are ready to succeed in first-year, credit-bearing college courses in the specific subjects ACT tests, according to ACT research. “Success” is defined as a 75% likelihood of earning a ‘C’ or better in the relevant course.
  • Little change in college readiness by subject.
    • The number of graduates reaching ACT’s college-ready benchmark in science increased from 37 to 38 percent over the past year.
    • In math, the number of graduates deemed college-ready decreased by one percent as was the case between 2013 and 2014.
    • In English there was no change in the number of graduates being college-ready but there was a two percentage point increase in reading.

Core Course Rigor

  • Graduates who completed ACT’s recommended core curriculum were much more likely to be college-ready.
    • Two-thirds (67 percent) of graduates who completed ACT’s Core Courses (4 years of English, and 3 years each of math, social studies, and science) met ACT’s college-ready benchmark in English compared to 36 percent of those who did not complete the Core Courses. In reading, 49 percent of graduates who completed the Core Courses met ACT’s college-ready benchmarks for reading compared to 34 percent who did not.
    • There was a much greater disparity when it came to math and science.
      • For those graduates who completed the Core Courses, nearly half (45 percent) were college-ready in math compared to just eight percent who had not.
      • For those graduates who completed the Core Courses, 42 percent were college-ready in science compared to just 18 percent who had not.

Test Takers

  • About 59 percent of all 2015 high graduates took the ACT, compared to 57 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in 2009.
  • More minority graduates are taking the ACT.
    • In 2015, nearly 29 percent of ACT test-takers were Hispanic or black, compared to 24 percent in 2010.
    • Furthermore, the percentage of test-takers who were white decreased between 2010 and 2015, from 62 percent to 55 percent.


For more information on how to use college entrance exam scores to evaluate your school, check out the Center’s Data First Web site.

* Data based on calculations from the Center for Public Education’s Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Is it harder to get into college

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