The national graduation rate continued to inch higher in 2017 to 84.6%, up from 84.1% in 2016, according to the latest Building a Grad Nation report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and Civic, a policy and research organization.
But states are off pace to reach the 90% rate by 2020 goal set by the Alliance for Excellent Education and America’s Promise Alliance, the organizations leading the GradNation campaign. An additional 199,466 students would have needed to graduate on time in 2017 to reach that goal.
The adjusted cohort rate in two states — Iowa and New Jersey — has surpassed 90%, and in 25 states, the rate now tops 85%. Only New Mexico has a rate lower than 75%, at 71.1%, the report says.
The focus on increasing graduation rates over the past two decades has "paid off with benefits to individuals, the economy and our civic society," the authors write. "America now needs a second act, as the rise in high school graduation rates slows down and the demands of the workplace require postsecondary education and training of some kind for most jobs today and in the future."
Rates since 2011 also increased for groups of students who tend to have higher dropout rates — from 71% to 80% for Hispanic students, 67% to 77.8% for black students, 70% to 78.3% for students from low-income homes, and 59% to 67% for students with disabilities. Rates for English learners, however, declined by half of a percentage point to 66.4%.
The report also shows a decline — from 2,425 in 2016 to 2,357 in 2017 — in low-graduation-rate high schools, those where the average rate is only 40%. Many of these schools have been identified for “comprehensive support and improvement,” under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), according to the report.
“If ESSA works as intended, these schools should all be engaging in evidenced-based reforms informed by a needs assessment,” the authors write. “It will be important to ensure that states and schools implement ESSA with fidelity as it pertains to these low-performing high schools.”
Risk factors for homeless students
A spotlight on homeless students — the group with likely the lowest graduation rate in the nation, the group says — is one of three additional components to the report. As part of an Education Leads Home campaign, the report includes graduation rates on homeless students from 26 states. Rates are below 70% in 20 states and below 60% in nine states. Minnesota has the lowest rate (45.4%), but in Delaware, 80% of homeless students graduate.
"Homelessness is a complex problem, and represents many vulnerabilities — social, emotional, physical — that get in the way of academic success," Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an advocacy and technical assistance organization that is part of the Education Leads Home campaign, said in an email. "Yet we know that lack of a high school degree is the highest risk factor for homelessness as a young adult, even when controlling for other factors."
She urges districts to increase the amount of time and resources that liaisons under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act have to connect students to support both in and out of school.
"Districts also can ensure that homeless students are a priority population in chronic absenteeism efforts, such as early warning systems, and help connect these youth to mentors and graduation coaches," she said.
New index looks beyond graduation rates
The report also includes a Secondary School Improvement Index, which measures whether states have made gains in other areas that point to academic achievement, such as 8th-grade reading and math proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the percent of high school students scoring at least a 3 on Advanced Placement exams.
The index is intended to raise red flags if a state’s graduation rates are increasing, but rates in other areas are declining. “As high school graduation rates have continued to rise, concerns have been expressed that some of the improvement may be driven by the lowering of standards and, in so doing, weakening the value of a high school diploma and its ability to signal college and workplace readiness,” the authors write.
The report shows that in more than two-thirds of states — 68% — there have been improvements in graduation rates as well as at least two other areas of academic performance.
Related to those concerns about lowering standards, the authors also urge “deeper investigations” into the role that credit recovery programs play in driving increases in graduation rates and how those graduates fare in college. A report released last fall showed that almost 10% of U.S. public high schools have at least a fifth of their students in credit recovery courses and that states don't have a consistent way of monitoring the quality of these programs.
The authors also call for clearer definitions of which students are considered to have disabilities and how states count students who receive alternative diplomas. And they urge leaders to continue efforts to better match diploma requirements with admissions criteria for state college and universities.
Finally, the report includes more attention to connections between high school, postsecondary education and career pathways, highlighting models such as P-TECH, in which school districts, community colleges and industry professionals partner to give students access to paid internships, job shadowing and interview opportunities. Some students also finish their associate degrees along with their high school diplomas.
“It is critical that schools help students understand the postsecondary options available to them and the application process, as well as the course requirements to access certain pathways,” the authors write.