Blog: The Educated Reporter

Report: School Reform, Not Improving Economy, Explains Rising Graduation Rates

Flickr/Dave Parker

The nation’s students are graduating from high school at record rates and the reasons can be attributed to school reform efforts, not improving economic trends, argues a new report released by several organizations, including an advocacy group backed by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The writers of the analysis, Building a Grad Nation, include major education researchers who say that based on 2013 high school graduation rates, the U.S. is on pace to see 90 percent of its high school students earn a diploma by 2020. To get there, an additional 330,000 students would need to graduate from high school. Those gains would be consistent with the progress the nation has made since the early 2000s: In the past decade, 1.8 million additional students earned their diplomas, according to the report.

“We are making progress in increasing graduation rates not because of broad demographic and economic trends, but because the leaders of schools, districts, communities and states are working hard to drive change,” said Robert Balfanz, research scientist and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, in a prepared statement. “Now in the third quarter of our 20-year campaign, we are seeing that big progress is possible, even in challenged districts and states.”

The most recent U.S. Department of Education figures show that 81.3 percent of U.S. students who began as ninth graders completed their high school education four years later.

That methodological distinction is important. As EWA has written before, only in the past few years have states begun reporting their graduation rates using a universal formula known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate. Before the use of the common measure, definitions of high school graduates varied state to state.

The report’s authors also note that black and Hispanic students have been graduating at higher rates, contributing to the increasing number of students who earn a high school diploma. Between 2011 and 2013, the two demographic groups saw their graduation rates rise by roughly 4 percentage points. The 2013 graduation rate for Hispanic students was 75 percent and for black students nearly 71 percent.

While low-income students demonstrated gains, they still lag considerably behind their peers. The national graduation rate for students not considered low-income is estimated at 88 percent, while the graduation rate for low-income students stands at 73 percent.

One reason for the academic improvements the report cites is the closure since 2002 of 800 schools that featured chronically low graduation rates, known as “dropout factories.” From Building a Grad Nation:

There are now fewer than 1,200 of these schools nationwide and 1.5 million fewer students attending them, and the number of African American and Hispanic/Latino students in these schools has dropped below 20 and 15 percent, respectively.

The report’s authors argue that improvements to the graduation rate in economically depressed communities suggest economic winds alone can’t account for the uptick in the number of students earning diplomas.

The analysis also finds that large school districts have been leading the way in driving down the dropout rate among high school students since 2011, with more than 40 percent of the 500 largest districts posting graduation rate gains that were higher than the national average.

Two data elements of note: 

Four different organizations contributed to the report’s release: Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance (where former general Colin Powell was the founding chairman), Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Its authors include Robert Balfanz, John M. Bridge Jennifer L. DePaoli, Joanna Hornig Fox, Erin S. Ingram, and Mary Maushard.