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Report: We’re Building a Grad Nation, but Challenges Remain

Published:  February 27, 2013

While many education advocates prepare for the looming sequester on March 1, the education policy news in D.C. wasn’t all bad this week. The nation is now on track – for the first time– to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, according to the fourth annual Building a Grad Nation report. Released at the Grad Nation Summit, hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, the report analyzes trends in the national graduation rate, which increased from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 78.2 percent in 2010, and celebrates the significant advances states have made.

States’ progress has accelerated since 2006, thanks in part to an outsized 2.7 percentage point increase in the graduation rate between 2009 and 2010. The recent gains are also largely due to improved graduation rates for Hispanic students (10.4 point gain) and for black students (6.9 point gain). Two states – Wisconsin and Vermont – have already hit the 90 percent mark, and eighteen more are on pace to meet it by 2020.

Notably, these gains come at a time when many states also increased high school requirements and when schools faced heightened accountability measures under No Child Left Behind. In 2012, nine states required students to pass end-of-course exams to graduate, compared to only two in 2002. Six more states required students to take end-of-course exams in 2012, but did not require a passing score. States are also continuing to raise the bar with adoption of the Common Core and other college- and career-ready standards.

Further, Grad Nation reports that over a million students are no longer attending dropout factories, compared to 2002, and the overall number of dropout factories fell by nearly 600 schools. Dropout factories are high schools where twelfth grade enrollment is 60 percent or less then ninth grade enrollment three years earlier. Again, the beneficiaries of this trend were mostly minority students: in 2002, almost half of America’s black students attended a dropout factory, but in 2011, only a quarter did so – a fifty percent decline.

While celebrating the achievements of the last decade, the report also cites the challenges that lie between today’s status quo and the 2020 goal. Over twenty states are not on pace to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate. More troubling, persistent achievement gaps remain. In 30 states, at least one-third of students with disabilities fail to graduate. The same is true for English Language Learners in 33 states, black students in 20 states, and Hispanic students in 16 states. In many cases, the proportion of students failing to graduate in these subgroups is much higher.

Another challenge lies within the data. The 78.2 percent mark was determined using the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR), rather than the 4-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate – the uniform methodology states and the federal government agreed to use in 2008. The Cohort Rate will enable a more consistent measure of graduation rates and allow states to more precisely identify schools and strategies that are preventing dropout. But there are technical questions about how to calculate the new rates. After the switch to the Cohort Rate in 2012, the difference between the old and new calculation methods was over five percentage points in nine states. Without a consistent measure, it is unclear how far and how fast states will need to improve to meet the 2020 goal.

Because of these lingering challenges, it is incredibly important for states and the federal government to remain vigilant in reporting accurate data and holding schools accountable for graduation rates, especially for at-risk students. As Ed Money Watch previously reported, many states have backtracked on commitments to graduation rate accountability in their waivers from No Child Left Behind – giving schools equal credit for students that take longer than four years to graduate, or counting GEDs and other non-diplomas. Further, many states are not holding schools accountable for – or even reporting – other measures that are critical early warning indicators of dropout, like chronic absenteeism.

With increased attention on students’ preparedness for college and careers after graduation, schools cannot forget about supporting students who are struggling just to finish their high school degree. To help, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new grant competition to place more AmeriCorps volunteers in the nation’s lowest-performing schools. While admirable, this is hardly a comprehensive solution. Federal and state lawmakers must do more and consider both goals – preventing dropout and increasing college and career readiness – equally when creating policies to measure and improve student achievement in our nation’s high schools.

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