Why US high school graduation rates are on the rise

The latest data suggests more American high school students are graduating than ever before. Some experts say new federal requirements are behind the improvement.

Andrew Krech/The Citizens' Voice/AP/File
A high school graduate raises his diploma in celebration as he walks back to his seat during his commencement ceremony, June 10, 2015, in Pittston, Pa.

High school graduation rates are rising in most states, according to new data.

Moreover, the traditional graduation gaps between white and minority students are shrinking, according to a report released Monday from the US Department of Education. 

Advocates of recent federal testing and polling standardization say the numbers indicate education reforms are working. 

"The story here is that, when it comes to graduation rate policy, federal requirements are working," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national education policy and advocacy organization.

"After years of many different calculations, states have begun using a common, reliable method to determine graduation rates. Armed with data, educators can identify problems, intervene with support, and increase the numbers of students who are earning their diplomas," he told The Christian Science Monitor.

For the 2013-2014 school year, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin had the nation's highest overall graduation rates, with 90.5, 89.7, and 88.6 percent of students finishing high school in four years, respectively. Indiana, Texas, and Iowa had the highest graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students, while Montana, Texas, and Alabama had the highest graduation rates for African-American students. 

The overall graduation rate increased from the previous school year in 36 states, with the biggest gains in Delaware, Alabama, and Oregon. 

Nationwide, high school graduation rates have been rising for the past decade. Last year, the national graduation rate hit 80 percent for the first time. Some say the US graduation rate is on track to hit 90 percent by 2020.

"It’s for me very, very encouraging," US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Monday. "By all indications, it looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction."

Secretary Duncan and his incoming successor John King, the former New York commissioner of education, say the new Common Core-aligned tests are pushing higher education standards across the board. 

The Common Core, a controversial "set of clear college-and-career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics," was assembled between 2009 and 2010 by governors, state officials, working groups of educators, and higher education representatives in 48 states. Currently, 42 states have implemented the Common Core. 

Graduation gains have also occurred within groups typically considered "disadvantaged," the new data reveals. Between the two most recent years for which we have data, the graduation gap between black and white students decreased in 28 states, the gap between Hispanic and white students decreased in 32 states, and the gap between economically disadvantaged students and all students decreased in 23 states.

The rising graduation rates for traditionally under-served students owe a lot to DOE requirements established in 2008, says Mr. Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

They required states to set annual targets both for overall high school graduation rates and for the graduation rates of each student subgroup, he explains. If any subgroup does not meet the graduation target for two or more years, the school must receive support from the state.

But education advocates also say the work is far from done.

"To be clear, there are still hundreds of thousands of kids every year who are dropping out. What chance in life do they have?" Mr. Duncan asked, according to The Washington Post. "Progress is good, but we’ve got to get better faster."

Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, points out the need to focus on students’ success post-graduation, too.

"Graduation rates alone don’t tell the whole story," she told the Monitor. "The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, indicates less than 40 percent of US students can read and do math at grade level. So while students may be graduating, it doesn’t mean they’re equipped to succeed in college or career."

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