"Counting on Graduation”: Most states are setting low expectations for the improvement of high school graduation rates

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this
Publication date: 
October 23 2008 (All day)

WASHINGTON (October 23, 2008) – Among industrialized nations, the United States is the only country in which today’s young people are less likely than their parents to have earned a high school diploma. Reversing this trend could hardly be more urgent.

Yet policymakers in many states are setting graduation improvement targets that won’t get our young people—or our nation—ready to compete in the knowledge-driven world of the 21st century. According to “Counting on Graduation,” a new report released today by The Education Trust, states must ratchet up expectations for high school graduation, substantially and immediately.

Federal law requires states to set benchmarks for improvements in reading and math achievement and for graduating high school students on time. However, the various methods states use to compute graduation rates obscure the reality that too few students are completing high school on time. Nationally, one of every four high school students fails to graduate on time. For African-American and Latino students, that rate increases to more than one in three.

New federal regulations, which are expected within the month, are likely to increase transparency in this area by requiring all states to use a single, reliable graduation rate calculation for all states and to ask schools to meet graduation goals for specific groups of students. Currently, schools base accountability only on overall averages, which ignores gaps between groups. So the new regulations will be an important step forward.

However, most state accountability systems still exhibit a surprising indifference toward improving the high school graduation rates—and thus, the life chances—of the state’s young people. And that has to change.

“At a time when most middle-class jobs require more than just a high school education, many states seem willing to accept remarkably high dropout rates,” said Anna Habash, policy analyst at The Education Trust and author of the report. “It’s as if policymakers haven’t gotten the message that knowledge and skills matter more than ever, not just for young people, but for their states’ economies, and even for our national security.”

States have set a wide range of graduation-rate goals, from a low of 50 percent in Nevada to a high of 95 percent in Indiana. But even goals that appear impressive can be irrelevant when a state sets the accountability bar low for year-to-year improvement. And more than half of all states have set annual targets so low that they accept any progress at all from the previous year.

For example, if the state-set minimum target were met each year:

  • North Carolina’s high schools would not achieve the state’s current overall graduation-rate goal until the year 2103. It would take an additional 95 years for the state’s African-American students and 180 years for its Latino students to reach the same goal.
  • African-American students in Maryland would reach their state’s goal in the year 3117.
  • In Delaware, New Mexico and South Carolina, no student group will ever actually have to reach the state goal as long as their current graduation rate is sustained each year.

“A number of states have set the bar so low that they are basically telling parents, ‘We’ll meet our goals when your grandchildren’s grandchildren are ready to graduate,’” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “Fortunately, some states are working hard to move the needle on this issue by setting both aggressive goals and targets and providing the necessary supports.”

Georgia, for example, has abandoned lower expectations and set a new goal of 100 percent graduation rates for every student group by 2014. To help schools achieve this, the state launched an initiative that allows each high school to employ a full-time graduation “coach.” Coaches identify students who show early signs of dropping out, and work with them to develop individual achievement and graduation plans. The coaches also provide training for parents and develop partnerships with community organizations.

In Mississippi earlier this year, the governor, legislators, and state and local education and community leaders came together for a dropout prevention summit held in conjunction with America’s Promise Alliance, a group that supports states in raising high school graduation rates. The state legislature also opened an office of dropout prevention within the state department of education and set a goal to cut their dropout rate in half over the next five years. In addition, each school district is being asked to develop a dropout-prevention plan in consultation with educators, students and community members.

The Education Trust report provides information about what states are doing (and not doing) to boost graduation rates and offers specific recommendations for state leaders. This improvement agenda is designed to support school and district efforts to accurately account for all students, hold them accountable for real improvement, and generate a statewide focus on closing the gaps and increasing graduation rates for all student groups.

“To sustain our national promise that education and hard work are the surest routes to economic, social, and civic security and success, we have to do much better by these young Americans. And we can,” said Alma J. Powell, chair of the America’s Promise Alliance. “If states are serious about raising graduation rates, the steps The Education Trust recommends must be central to the policy agenda.”