Some High Schoolers Need More Time to Graduate. States Can Give It to Them

Kostyo: Extended-year graduation rates can re-engage students who are unable to earn a diploma in four years — and reward schools for doing it.

This is a photo of a group of students in cap and gowns facing away from the camera.

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America’s schools are short on a valuable resource — learning time. They are trying to make up for the lost instructional time during the pandemic and for the countless hours that millions of students continue to miss by not attending school regularly. During the 2021-22 school year, an estimated 1 in 3 students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year. This lost time puts many at risk of not graduating.

In addition to implementing supplementary programs before and after school and during the summer, states can recoup some of that learning time and give students a better chance at earning a diploma by utilizing extended-year graduation rates.

The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states the flexibility to implement five- to seven-year rates while maintaining the standard four-year measure. This provides incentives for schools to work with — and even bring back — students who do not don a high school cap and gown within the standard time frame.

Such a system advances more equitable outcomes for all young people, especially those in historically underserved communities whose life circumstances don’t fit a traditional graduation profile.

Students experience many barriers to graduation, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. They may need more time to earn their diplomas if they are caring for a child or younger sibling, are experiencing homelessness, dropped out to find employment, immigrated to the U.S., have been incarcerated or simply need an extra year or two to fulfill their requirements.

Extended-year graduation rates reward schools for reengaging students who experience unexpected challenges, become disengaged in their education, have dropped out or didn’t return to school after COVID-19’s disruptions. Plus, a longer runway may encourage districts to focus their resources differently than they have in the past, for instance, spending time on meaningful learning rather than questionable credit recovery programs.

Extended-year graduation rates have been gaining in popularity but could be used more extensively. In 2011, only four states explicitly included them in their accountability systems. By 2013, 10 states employed them under ESEA waivers. In 2018, 35 states included at least one extended-year graduation rate in their original ESSA plans. Since then, Idaho, California and the District of Columbia formally added five-year rates. But because Alabama, Arizona and Indiana reverted to only using a four-year rate, the current count is 34 states plus D.C.

This means 16 states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming) and Puerto Rico could formally add at least one more year of valuable learning for their students.

These are not the only states that can take action. An additional 18 states (Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia, plus D.C.) incorporate solely a five-year rate. Adding a year 6 or 7 could entice students to persist to graduation. 

Expanded use of these additional graduation measures would be a promising sign for students and communities. According to America’s Promise Alliance, if graduation rates beyond four years were adopted in all 50 states, the national percentage of high school graduates could increase by 4 percentage points. Since high school graduation is linked with positive outcomes such as increased earnings, better health and lower incarceration rates, even small gains could create substantial benefits nationwide.

Several states have already seen an increase in the number of graduates, including for those furthest from opportunity. Nebraska was an early adopter; state results show the graduation gap between white students and peers of color closing 2 to 4 percentage points when using the extended-year rates instead of a four-year standard. Michigan also experienced gains, including a 9% increase in the six-year graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students compared to the four-year rate.The positive outcomes associated with extended year rates makes sense. Without a path to graduation, students might leave school to enter the workforce early or try to carve an alternate path forward. But given a chance to earn a diploma and the lifetime of opportunities that come with it, many choose to stick it out. Every state should give students a shot at walking across the high school graduation stage — even if it takes more time.

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