Written annually by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and released in partnership with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, this report examines the progress and challenges the nation faces in reaching the GradNation goal of a national on-time graduation rate of 90 percent by the Class of 2020:
The nation has achieved an 82.3 percent high school graduation rate – a new record high – and had another year of significant gains for nearly all student subgroups. These gains have been made possible by the schools, districts, and states that prioritized raising their graduation rates and made sure more students leave high school equipped with a high-quality diploma. Over the past decade, a majority of states increased the number of students graduating high school on time, and put themselves in good position to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the Class of 2020.
At the same time, the number of high schools failing to graduate one-third or more of students has been reduced, meaning fewer students are attending high schools where graduation is not the norm.
All of this progress, however, is tempered by the fact that this year the national rate of improve- ment – 0.9 percentage points – puts the nation off pace to reach the 90 percent goal, and marked the first time since 2011 the national graduation rate increased by less than one point.
There are also very real concerns that too many of our most vulnerable students remain in low-graduation-rate schools, and that the alternative pathways that have been created to meet their needs may, in many cases, not be up to the task. Additionally, questions have been raised about the validity of rising graduation rates and whether the increasing number of high school diplomas being earned is translating into success in postsecondary education and careers. In this year’s Building a Grad Nation report, we examine these issues further and explore both the important progress the nation has made and the considerable challenges that remain.
The National Picture
When the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) hit 80 percent in 2012, we calculated that the national graduation rate would need to increase by roughly 1.2 percentage points per year to achieve 90 percent by the Class of 2020. Between 2013 and 2014, the nation missed this mark, and will now have to average closer to 1.3 percentage points over the next six years to reach the goal.
At the state level:
§ Of the 47 states reporting ACGR since 2011, Iowa became the first state to reach 90 percent, and 20 other states are on pace to reach a 90 percent gradua- tion rate. Five of these on-pace states – Nebraska, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Texas, and Wisconsin – are within two percentage points of the goal. The majority of these on-pace states started within 10 to 12 points of the goal and steadily climbed each year.
The state-level data also showed troubling trends for student subgroups:
America’s Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools
Low-graduation-rate high schools – those graduating 67 percent or less of students – are on the decline, but there are still significant numbers of them across the country. These high schools tend to enroll larger populations of Black, Hispanic/Latino, and low-income students, and it is therefore critical that low-graduation-rate high schools be targeted for additional reforms and support. The new Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) requires just this, prompting states to use evidence-based approaches to improve the high schools enrolling 100 or more students with an ACGR of 67 percent or less. Keeping in line with the new legislation, we examined the schools that meet the ESSA definition for low-performing high schools to see where they are and what kind of high schools tend to fall into this category. Some of our findings include:
In all, 57 percent of alternative high schools nationwide were low-graduation-rate high schools, while only eight percent of alternative schools were high-graduation rate high schools.
Alternative high schools had an average graduation rate of just 52 percent.
§ Twenty-six percent of low-graduation-rate high schools were charter schools and 12 percent of non-graduates came from charter schools. Thirty percent of charter schools reporting ACGR in 2014 were low-grad- uation-rate high schools, and 44 percent were high-graduation-rate high schools. Charter schools had an average graduation rate of 70 percent, meaning the depth of low performance in the low-graduation-rate high schools is drastically pulling down the overall performance of these schools.
§ Virtual schools made up seven percent of low-grad- uation-rate high schools and produced four percent
of non-graduates; however, roughly 87 percent of virtual schools were low-graduation-rate high schools in 2014. Only four percent were high-gradua- tion-rate high schools.
Though alternative, charter, and virtual schools collec-tively make up only about 14 percent of high schools and enroll just eight percent of high school students, they make up around 50 percent of low-graduation-rate high schools nationwide and produce 20 percent of non-graduates. It should be noted that many of these schools exist to serve a vulnerable student population, and therefore deal with significant challenges that can make
it difficult to get students on track to graduation in four years. That is why we are calling on states to mandate the reporting of five- and six-year graduation rates, which would provide a better understanding of how these high schools are really doing in getting students to graduation. Beyond that, the analysis in this report indicates that too many of the growing number of alternative, charter, and virtual high schools are not graduating high percentages of students in four years. It is vital that we meaningfully examine all of the nation’s low-graduation-rate high schools to ensure that all students are being given the opportunities and support they need to succeed in life.
Setting the Record Straight on High School Graduation Rates
As the national high school graduation rate continues to rise, questions have been raised about whether this growth is real and if it leads to postsecondary success for students. To begin investigating these questions, this report first examined indicators of high school rigor and college readiness, including high school exit exams, ACT and SAT test-taking and scores, and AP course- taking and passing rates. These indicators show that the number of students taking the ACT, SAT, and AP courses has increased over time. The number of students passing at least one AP course has increased, while ACT and SAT exam scores have stagnated. This clearly shows that more effort is needed to ensure all high school graduates are fully ready for postsecondary schooling, but it is not evidence that standards have been lowered as high school graduation rates have risen.