States are reporting varied trends in high school graduation rates for 2021-22, the first full in-person school year for many schools and a year when many states still had graduation requirement flexibilities in place.
In California, graduation rates reached 87%, up from 83.6% in 2020-21. The latest numbers "likely reflect those accommodations designed to give a boost to students most impacted by COVID-19," according to a December news release from the state's Department of Education.
Oregon also reported a slight uptick late last month, from 80.6% for the class of 2021 to 81.3% for the class of 2022.
However, other states, including Florida, Indiana, and Wyoming, saw a drop in graduation rates when compared to 2020-21.
"In 2021 and 2022, as far as we could tell, they [graduation rates] went down as people were expecting them to, but perhaps not as much as people feared," said Robert Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center. "And that decline was driven by a lot of high school kids [who] got disengaged from school during virtual schooling."
States struggling to keep students on track
In Florida, for example, the percentage of students who were absent 21 or more days increased to 20.9% in 2021-22 from 16.6% in 2020-21.
Even states showing improvements in graduation rates were not immune to similar upticks in overall absenteeism or dropout rates.
Colorado — which saw a 0.6 percentage point bump in its graduation rate to 82.3% for the class of 2022 — experienced an increase in its dropout rate, which rose 0.4 percentage points to 2.2% in 2021-22. It was the first dropout rate increase reported since 2015, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Nearly half of the state's districts reported their dropout rates were higher in 2021-22 than in 2020-21.
And despite California's graduation gains, the state’s chronic absenteeism rate more than doubled from 14.3% in 2020-21 to 30% in 2021-22. The state defines chronic absenteeism as students missing 10% of the days they were enrolled.
This increase is "mirroring trends in other states for a year when schools continued to experience the effects of COVID-19 community surges on attendance," according to the department's release late last year.
Marginalized students gain ground
In pre-pandemic years, increases in graduation rates were driven by improvements for students more likely to drop out — Black, Latino and low-income students, according to Balfanz.
Some states are still seeing improvements for these subgroups. Indiana, which experienced a slight overall decline in its graduation rate, showed improvements for Black and Hispanic students, English learners, special education students, and students receiving free and reduced-priced meals.
Overall, Balfanz expects an overall rebound in high school graduation rates in the long run.
"Once they get back into school on a regular basis, I think things will push back up," added Balfanz. "It'll take a couple of years, unfortunately, with some dips."
Federal data in this area, which typically lags by at least a year, has not yet been released for 2021-22.