How high school graduations reached a record rate

High school graduation record rate: More than 80 percent of the nation’s high school students graduated on time in 2015, marking the highest rate ever. But many still remain disadvantaged by income, region, and race.

Bruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle/AP/File
A graduate leads a cheer as South Panola High School holds graduation ceremonies at the Batesville Civic Center in Batesville, Miss. in 2013. A new federal report shows that graduation rates are up across all demographics nationwide.

More high school students across the nation received their diplomas last year than ever before, with a record 83 percent of students graduating on time, according to the White House.

The announcement follows a trend in improving graduation rates, which have climbed steadily since the 2010-2011 school year. Experts say that a more uniform education system across states, thanks in part to more cohesive federal standards like Common Core and the creation of a consistent system for reporting graduation rates, has played a role in boosting numbers nationwide.

“This increase reflects important progress schools across the country are making to better prepare students for college and careers after graduation,” the White House said in a statement.

The benefits of the system were felt across racial and economic lines, as well as among those with learning disabilities or students learning English as a second language – albeit not proportionally.  

While the report shows improvement across the board, a closer look reveals that some demographics still face more barriers than others. Around 88 percent of white students graduated on time, compared to 78 percent of Hispanic students, 75 percent of black students, and 72 percent of Native American and Native Alaskan students.

Students with learning disabilities or those learning English as a second language lagged behind the furthest, graduating at rates of 65.1 and 64.6 percent, respectively.

The numbers also varied from state to state, with Iowa posting the highest graduation rate at 90.2 percent, and Washington, D.C. seeing only 68.5 percent of students graduate. Still, D.C saw a 7 percent increase from last year, marking the largest regional jump in the country.

Officials said last year that the new Common Core-aligned tests likely spurred higher education standards across the board. The controversial learning goals are meant to provide a "set of clear college-and-career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics." Taking input from governors, state officials, and educators across 48 states, the program was built between 2009 and 2010.

While the data shows promising results from education reforms, there’s still work to be done. Graduation requirements still vary from state to state, and not all students who receive diplomas are ready to enter the workforce or keep up with the demands at a four-year college. A report from the National Assessment of Education Programs released earlier this year found that fewer than half of students possessed the skills necessary to qualify as “college-ready.”

Some schools, feeling pressure from the federal government to show improvements, could find the incentive to relax their requirements, handing out diplomas that students haven’t fully earned.

For those reasons, proponents of education reform say, it's important to follow the paths students take after graduation to see how well the system is serving America's youth.

"Graduation rates alone don’t tell the whole story," Kara Kerwin, the president of the Center for Education Reform, told The Christian Science Monitor when last year’s data was released. "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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