When Scandals Undercut America’s Soaring — and Suspicious — High School Graduation Rate

Photo credit: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Keen watchers of U.S. education might be forgiven for feeling a sense of whiplash recently as they read seemingly contradictory news about high school graduation rates.

First, the apparent “good news”: The high school graduation rate, steadily increasing since 2011, reached a record high of 84.1 percent in 2016, according to new data released by the Education Department. But the news was immediately diminished by the concurrent release of a critical analysis by the Fordham Institute that questioned the value of a high school diploma, a lingering scandal in Washington, D.C., in which half of graduates missed three months or more of school, and, last month, the release of a new report out of Chicago that revealed an alarming difference between the number of students graduating and those passing yearly tests.

Here are some of the issues that have edu-watchers scratching their heads:

1 Record-High Grad Rate

In 2016, 84.1 percent of U.S. students completed high school on time, the highest rate since the Department of Education started collecting the data in 2011. Since then, the rate has risen about 4 percentage points, which previous education secretaries have celebrated and publicized. Current education department head Betsy DeVos was more cautious, however, calling graduation one step in a “lifelong journey.”

2 Diploma Value Questioned

The news comes amid an ongoing conversation about the value of a high school diploma and what it says about a student’s ability and performance. By many accounts, rising graduation rates and increasing efforts to send students to college have not been matched by an increase in student learning or achievement. In Los Angeles, for example, more than half of district high school graduates were not eligible for California’s state colleges and universities in 2016 because they received a D grade in one of the courses required for admission.

The recent Fordham Institute analysis by Brandon L. Wright called the situation “absurd and untenable” and called for changes to school accountability practices and graduation requirements. Wright argues that stripping the diploma of its worth disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable students, who leave school unprepared for college and career at higher rates. He cites research indicating that the six-year graduation rate at public universities is just 40 percent for black students, and even lower for black students who take remedial courses.

3 Conflicting Data in Chicago

In December, an analysis of Chicago graduation rates published by Chicago City Wire revealed a “staggering difference” between the number of students graduating and those who passed annual exams. At one school, no students passed the yearly tests, yet more than 90 percent graduated in 2016. The analysis shows that at the vast majority of schools, more students are graduating than are passing the tests — only two schools had a higher pass rate than graduation rate.

(Adding to the sense of Windy City whiplash, a recent study found that charter schools there are outperforming their district counterparts in graduating students and sending them to college, though district improvements are narrowing the gap. And an analysis by The New York Times found that elementary school students in Chicago are learning more and at a faster rate than those in almost any other district in the country.)

4 Scandal in D.C.

A NPR/WAMU investigation published in November revealed that at the once-celebrated Ballou High School, where all graduates were accepted to college last year, more than half of the students who graduated had missed more than three months of school in their senior year. The school principal has since been reassigned, and the state superintendent and the district are investigating the school. In recent years, similar incidents have been reported in New Jersey, Maryland, Alabama, and Texas.

5 Concerns Over Remediation Costs

One of the major concerns about the decreasing value of a high school diploma is the cost of remediation courses for students who arrive at college underprepared. Remediation courses are often expensive, typically do not yield any college credits, and often are not particularly effective at helping students graduate from college, according to several studies. For instance, only 1 in 5 students who enroll in remedial math courses goes on to pass entry-level classes, and only 37 percent of students in remedial reading do, the studies say. Nationally, the estimated cost of remediation is $7 billion, which falls to students.

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