Skip to content

Building a Grad Nation— Complete with Gaps and Loopholes

June 5, 2018

On June 05, 2018, EdWeek published an article entitled, “There Are Now More High Schools With Low Graduation Rates. Why?” The article concerns this report released by America’, entitled, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates: Annual Update 2018.”

The 84-page 2018 grad report includes a number of interesting tables, including those regarding state graduation rates. For example, information found in Table 3 (page 23) of the 2018 grad report shows large school district progress from 2011 – 2016 by state. What is particularly interesting in Table 3 is the breakdown of percentages of state school districts by their contribution to the overall state graduation rate and what those percentages show.  Just because a state’s graduation rate rises, that does not mean that all district graduation rates are faring well. Consider New Mexico: Even though the overall graduation rate rose 3 percent from 2011 to 2016, for 21 percent of New Mexico districts, the gain was actually greater than 10 percent– which serves to offset the news that almost half of New Mexico’s districts (47 percent) have grad rates that either remained the same or decreased from 2011 to 2016. Too, in Kentucky, the 2011-2016 state grad rate rose a single point. However, 20 percent of its districts had an increase greater than 5.1%– a result hidden by the 48 percent of districts with rates either remaining the same or decreasing.


Given that American public education has long been in the throes of test score and other quantifiable-stat obsession, and given that states and districts have been pushing for ever-higher test scores and grad rates as a condition of fiscal survival, I find it amazing that according to Table 3, in 19 states, at least one in three districts (33 percent) have graduation rates that either remained the same or declined from 2011-2016. But this information potentially remains hidden behind state-level reporting; only one state (Vermont) had no change in its state-level graduation rate from 2011-2016.

Below are some details from the 2018 grad report concerning Table 3:

Within the table, a few patterns can be seen. In four states where substantial statewide efforts to raise graduation rates were undertaken – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and West Virginia – the majority of districts experienced large graduation rate gains, and relatively few had no improvement or backsliding. In each of these states, the median rate of improvement for school districts was very substantial, at least 10 percentage points. In other words, in these states half of the school districts saw improvements that were at least two times greater than the national rate of growth. This is a clear sign that significant high school graduation rate improvements were widely distributed across the school districts in these states.

There is a second set of improving states, however, where statewide gains were driven by a smaller set of districts. In these states, a subset of larger school districts that experienced substantial improvement were able to offset lower rates of growth among the majority of school districts in their state. In New Mexico and New Jersey, for example, more districts saw no gains or back sliding than experienced improvements above the national rate of growth. Yet, in New Mexico, the 32 percent of districts with gains above the national rate and in New Jersey the 20 percent of districts with such gains were able (due to their relative size) to propel both states to
overall graduation rate gains that were greater than the rate of national improvement.

A third set of states fell between these two poles. States like California, Oregon, Mississippi, and North Carolina saw 40 to 60 percent of their school districts growing above the national rate of improvement, which more than offset the substantial number of districts growing at slower rates or going backwards.

Other interesting information can be found in Table 4 (page 28), ” States with the Highest Proportion of Black Nongraduates, 2016.”

Included in the listing of 15 states are several states with notable overall rises in state graduation rates from 2011-2016. Second on the high-Black-nongrad listing is Louisiana, which according to Table 3 has an 8-point rise in overall graduation rate from 2011-2016. However, in 2016, 54.6 percent of Louisiana’s nongraduates were Black, outpacing the percentage of Black students in the 2016 cohort (44 percent). A second example is Georgia, with its 14-point rise in state-level, 2011-2016 graduation rate; 44.2% of Georgia’s 2016 nongraduates were Black, with the overall percentage of Black students in the 2016 cohort at 38.2 percent.

From the 2018 grad report:

In 2016, Black students made up only 15.8 percent of the total graduating cohort, but they comprised 23.5 percent of the nation’s non-graduates. In nearly half of states – 22 in all – Black students made up about a quarter or more of students not graduating in four years, and in two of those states – Mississippi (60.2 percent) and Louisiana (54.6 percent) – more than half of all students not graduating in four years are Black.

Though many of these states in Table 4 have among the highest percentage of Black students in their graduating cohort and higher graduation rates for Black students than the national average, all have a disproportionate percentage of Black non-graduates.

The 2018 grad report also consider states with highest proportions of Hispanic nongraduates in 2016. From the report:

…Hispanic students comprised 23.3 percent of the national graduating cohort in 2016, but they made up 30.4 percent of all non-graduates. In 11 states, the percentage of Hispanic non-graduates is greater than the national average. In three of those states – California (61 percent), New Mexico (59.5 percent), and Texas (59.4 percent) – Hispanic students made up well over half of all non-graduates, though in New Mexico, the percentage of Hispanic non-graduates aligns closely with the percentage of Hispanic students in the cohort. Unlike states with high proportions of Black non-graduates, the majority of states with high proportions of Hispanic non-graduates tend to have lower graduation rates for these students than the national average.

Next, let us consider low-income students. Overall, cohort graduation rates of low-income students have risen from 2014 to 2016; however, in some states, the gap is widening:

Nearly half of the country’s 2016 graduating cohort – 47.6 percent – came from low-income families. While this represents a slight decrease from the 2014 cohort, it emphasizes that low-income students must remain a central focus in efforts to boost graduation rates and educational equity across the nation. In 2016, 77.6 percent of low-income students graduated on time, compared to 90 percent of non-low-income students.

In 2016, 36 states graduated less than 80 percent of low-income students, and one-quarter of those states (nine) graduated less than 70 percent. This shows marked progress from 2011, when all but two states had low-income graduation rates below 80 percent, and 22 of them graduated less than 70 percent of low-income students.

The graduation gap between low-income and non-low-income students ranges from a high of 24 percentage points in South Dakota to a low of 2.8 percentage points in Indiana. Aside from Indiana, Midwestern States were home to the largest graduation gaps for low-income students. States with the four largest graduation gaps and five of the six largest gaps between low-income students and their peers were located in the region.

While states like South Dakota and North Dakota have some of the smallest proportions of low-income students, with cohorts of 29.4 percent and 26.5 percent respectively, more than 40 percent in Michigan and Ohio were low-income.

  • In five states, the gap between low-income students and non-low-income students is greater than 20 percentage points. In total, 39 states had gaps greater than 10 percentage points in 2016.
  • Both North Dakota and Connecticut have graduation rates above 87 percent – well above the national average – but the 2nd and 10th largest gaps, respectively.
  • While gaps between low-income and non-low-income students have decreased in the majority of states over the past six years, 16 states have actually seen the graduation rate gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers increase.

The states with the highest proportions of non-graduates who are low-income differ greatly by geography and overall income-level, illustrating the degree to which high- and low-income states must address the graduation rates of their low-income students. For example, of the 10 states with the largest proportions of low-income non-graduates, three were among the 10 richest states in the country by median household income in 2016 (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California), while 2 were among the 10 poorest states by median household income (Mississippi and Louisiana) (United States Census Bureau, 2017).

  • In California and Kansas, more than eight in 10
    students who failed to graduate from high school
    were low-income. In 12 states, three out of every
    four students who did not graduate high school were
  • Six states have low-income graduation rates above
    the national average for all students of 84.1 percent
    (Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas,
    West Virginia).
  • While most states saw increases in their low-income
    graduation rate, 10 states – Alabama, Idaho, Illinois,
    Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma,
    Rhode Island, and Utah – actually saw their
    rates decrease from 2015 to 2016.

The report also includes information on cohort graduation rates of students with disabilities and non-native English speakers. Given the challenge of condensing info from an 84-page report into a blog post, I will only mention the presence of such info and let readers who wish to examine the full report for further details.

In closing, I offer a few additional highlights from the report. In the section entitled, “The Schools Producing the Most Non-Graduates,” is the following info on Michigan, home state of US ed sec Betsy DeVos, who oversees the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA):

[In Michigan,] the largest number of on-time non-graduates (32 percent) is found in high schools with graduation rates above the national rate of 84 percent. Nearly half its non-graduates, however, are located in alternative schools (24 percent), virtual schools (6 percent), and special education schools (2 percent), or schools of any type with fewer than 100 students (12 percent). The size of this last segment is worrisome, as schools with less than 100 students generally fall outside of the high school graduation rate accountability structure under ESSA. Given that only 8 percent of Michigan’s non-graduates are found in regular and vocational high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, and just 9 percent of such students are in regular high schools with ACGR rates between 68 percent and 83 percent, it seems clear in Michigan that many non-graduates leave traditional high schools with low graduation rates for non-traditional options but do not succeed in graduating on-time. [Emphasis added.]

A takeaway from the above excerpt: It is possible to game ESSA cohort graduation rate reporting by hiding challenging students in smaller schools. This reality is not lost on the 2018 grad report authors:

ESSA set the cutoff point at schools enrolling 100 or more students. States need to be aware of what schools may fall under this cutoff point or if schools are intentionally keeping enrollment below 100 students to avoid accountability.

There is also the question of inflating graduation rates via “credit recovery”:

Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the use of credit recovery courses and alternative programs to move off-track students toward their diploma. While some of these courses and programs may be useful for a small subset of students who have mitigating circumstances, many of them fail to provide a rigorous education and prepare students for life beyond high school. Many school districts across the country have become dependent on credit recovery courses to graduate students, and while this often speaks to larger challenges faced by these school districts, credit recovery should be used as a last resort, not a first option.  Additionally, little is known about the quality of most available credit recovery coursework, and more research and evaluation should be done to ensure that schools and districts have the right information when adopting any credit recovery programs.

Alternative programs, including dropout recovery, virtual, and other non-traditional pathways, have become increasingly popular routes to graduation for students who have not had success in high school. Despite becoming the last best option for some students, a significant number of these alternative schools and programs are neither graduating students nor are they providing them with an education that will prepare them for postsecondary or career options. States, especially those with large numbers of these schools, need to examine their quality and determine whether they are helping young people or simply offering meaningless credentials.

Or simply offering meaningless credentials.


I’ll stop there. Feel free to peruse the entire report.



Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s