Education Week announced that it is ending its annual spotlight coverage of graduation rates. When the first Diplomas Count was published back in 2006, there was no uniformity in the ways states reported graduation rate rates to the federal government. Education Week developed its own uniform measure – the Cumulative Promotion Index. This allowed them to calculate graduation rates for every school district and report results for the nation as a whole.
No surprise that the graduation rates published in that first Diplomas Count were almost all lower than the rates the states themselves were reporting. Since then, the Department of Education developed its own uniform measure – the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.
In 2006 the Diplomas Count report projected that about 30% of the class of 2006 would not graduate on time, putting the national graduation rate at about 70%. State rates ranged from a low of 52.5% in South Carolina to a high of 84.5% in New Jersey. Today the national graduation rate of 82% for the class of 2014 represents an all-time high. It reflects growth of a full percentage point over the prior year and 3 percentage points over 2011. State rates range from a low of 61% in the District of Columbia to a high of 91% in Iowa.
What’s Behind the Numbers
It’s true that the news about graduation rates is generally positive. However, while improvements for disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups as well as English Language Learners and students with disabilities have outpaced the U.S. average, significant gaps remain.
Using the Department of Education data for the class of 2014, Education Week created an interactive map that displays graduation rates by state for various subgroups. Just clicking through from group to group, the existing gaps are clearly illustrated. While the map depicting graduation rates for Asian (national average: 89%) and white (national average: 87%) students are almost exclusively tinted in shades of blue, maps for Latino (76%), Black (73%), American Indian (70%) and economically disadvantaged (75%) students are a mix of blues and tans. The maps for ELLs (63%) and students with disabilities (63%) are dominated by tans.
To understand the full impact of these differences you have to dive into the associated data table. For example, the graduation rate gap between white and black students is 20 percentage points or more in California, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Creating meaningful change at the high school level is difficult. There are so many factors in play. This year’s Diplomas Count presents a number of examples of high school reform models that are having some success. Core elements of high school redesign include having a clear mission, facilitating close relationships between students and adults, offering a challenging curriculum, and adopting a personalized approach.
Though school change models provide a framework, schools must adapt their approaches to address the unique needs of their students. All high schools in a district may be offering a similar rigorous curriculum; but the supports and scaffolds they implement will differ depending on the students they serve.
Real-world connections may be an important element in engaging students who don’t see any inherent value in learning. And some just want skills that will enable them to earn a living and help support their families. Schools serving large populations of ELLs may need to reach out to the community to help develop a culture that values school completion. Rural high schools face challenges very different from those of their urban counterparts.
But if a school’s mission is clear and everyone, including the community, has bought in, the chance of success is greatly enhanced.