high school graduation rate

5 ways to get the U.S. to a 90 percent high school graduation rate


The nation could miss its high school graduation rate goal if more states don't improve progress.

The latest annual report in a series tracking the U.S. high school graduation rate reveals that, while the national graduation rate is 83.2 percent, the nation could miss its goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 due to persistent equity gaps.

The 2017 Building a Grad Nation report, the eighth annual update on progress and challenges in boosting high school graduation rates, reveals that only half of U.S. states are on track to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020.

A close look at the data shows disparities in graduation rates in five key areas.

Low-income students: Nearly half of the country’s 2015 graduating cohort–48.2 percent, a slight increase from 2014–came from low-income families. Nationally, the gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers now stands at 13.7 percentage points.

Black and Hispanic/Latino students: Graduation rates for black students have increased 7.6 percentage points and 6.8 percentage points for Hispanic/Latino students since 2011–some of the highest gains of any student subgroup. However, black and Hispanic/Latino students make up 54 percent of all students who did not graduate on time.

(Next page: 5 policy recommendations to improve the high school graduation rate)

Students with disabilities: Thirty-three states reported high school graduation rates for special education students below 70 percent, and nearly half of those 33 states had graduation rates for students with disabilities below 60 percent. Four states–South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Nevada–graduated less than half of their special education students.

English Language Learners: The number of ELL students in America’s public schools is climbing. The 10 states with the highest proportion of ELL non-graduates accounted for 66 percent of all ELL non-graduates in the country, while more than one-third of English Language Learners who did not graduate on time are located in California alone.

Low-graduation-rate high schools: Since 2002, the number of large, low-graduation-rate high schools (enrolling 300 or more students) has been cut in half and there are now fewer than 900,000 students enrolled in them, down from 2.5 million. There were 2,249 low-graduation-rate high schools (enrolling 100 or more students) in 2015, making up just 12 percent of all public high schools enrolling 100 or more students. Two out of three students in low-graduation-rate high schools are black or Hispanic/Latino. Six in 10 students in low-graduation-rate high schools qualified as being low-income in 2015, meaning that there is little economic diversity in the nation’s most challenged high schools.

To combat these equity challenges the report offers policy recommendations to help states get or stay on track for 90 percent high school graduation rates by 2020.

1. Create high-quality ESSA implementation plans. States should adhere closely to the statute on identifying low-graduation-rate high schools as those with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, continue to use the four-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate in this determination, and give substantial weight to graduation rates in state accountability plans.

2. Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools. States and school districts should adopt evidence-based practices, including implementing early warning systems to identify and support students who are off track based on their attendance, behavior, and course performance records, making social and emotional learning a part of the curriculum, and providing students with high-quality postsecondary and workforce engagement opportunities.

3. Get the cohort rate right by improving uniformity and transparency in the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). The four-year ACGR remains the “gold standard” measure for collecting and reporting on high school graduation rates, but there is still room for improvement that would provide even greater uniformity and transparency.

4. Report extended-year graduation rates. Requiring states to report extended-year graduation rates for students graduating in five and six years would create a policy incentive (and often, financial incentive) for schools and districts to keep off-track students in school and re-engage those who may have left the system.

5. Strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools. While some states and districts have created high-quality alternative accountability systems, far too many alternative schools and programs, with some of the poorest academic outcomes of any school, are skirting accountability.

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Laura Ascione

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