Back to the Future: High School Graduation Rates

Yes, the rate for U.S. students graduating high school reached 78 percent in 2010, the highest since 1970. And furthermore, dropout rates has fallen to three percent,  its lowest since that year. Have you heard any bells chiming the good news? Any upbeat news flashes interrupting CNN anchors? Where are the bloggers posts of U.S. schools finally turning around and on the upswing refuting those school reform Cassandras’ constant talk of failing U.S. schools? I have not heard any bells chiming, seen any news flashes, or read such posts. Isn’t this good news? Sure, it is but bad news accompanies it as well.

Here is some history on U.S. graduation rates. Not  until the 1930s, did getting a high school diploma seem within reach of most U.S. teenagers (13-17 years of age). During the Great Depression, for the first time over half of 13-17 year olds attended high school. WW II interrupted that trend. Half of high school students completed high school for the first time in 1940. By the 1950s, about two-thirds or more were graduating and  receiving a diploma became the norm. In 1970,  78 percent of U.S. students graduated high school. Current figures return U.S. to that period over four decades ago. Thus, back to the future.

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What about the diploma gap between whites and minorities?

Historically, minorities dropped out far more often than white students. That trend continues although in the most recent figures far higher percentages of minorities received diplomas than they had decades earlier. But the diploma gap–the bad news– remains substantial.

So why have high school  graduation rates increased overall including gains for minorities? Here is where explanations get dicey. Keep in mind that a single-factor explanation for annual upticks (or down-ticks) in national numbers is suspect. Schooling, like life, is complex. Many factors come into play in trying to explain changes in U.S. schooling. So picking factors that are associated strongly with one another and leaping to a cause-effect conclusion would be an error.

Those observers who point out that more students stay in school during hard economic times when jobs are difficult to find (e.g., the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession after 2007) are surely correct. Just as those who swear that standards-based testing and accountability policies over the past few decades have paid off in more diplomas also have evidence of a strong correlation. Or in looking at where the gains in graduation rates were highest–among, for example, minorities most of whom lived in urban districts–those gains could have bumped up national figures. Or perhaps there were differences in how graduation rates were calculated then and now–passing General Education Development tests (GEDs) are sometimes counted and sometimes not.

I could go on list other factors but readers can see that there are many ways to explain the upward trend in high school graduation rates. Here I want to offer an additional explanation that rarely gets attention to help explain partially–not fully–the 78 percent of U.S. students graduating, a figure that was reached forty years earlier.

School reform talk and action between the 1970s and now–recall deep public concern over falling SAT scores in the 1960s and 1970s, in part, leading to the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983)–has hammered again and again the same nail: U.S. students, compared to other nations’ students, were behind and getting worse. The Nation at Risk and the test-driven accountability reforms of the 1980s through No Child Left Behind (2001) were anchored in the assumption that all U.S. schools were failing. That assumption, however, was false for all U.S. students although it was correct for a subset of children and youth.

The correct part of the assumption is that in most urban districts, poor and minority students were receiving (and still do) a second-rate schooling compared to students in affluent mostly white districts in the U.S. These schools had failed for decades and continued to fail children and youth. In cities like Washington, D.C. and New York between 40 to 50 percent of students left school before graduating. They still do.

The rest of the assumption that all U.S. schools are failing their students, however, is incorrect because the point of comparison are those nations who score high on international academic tests. For policymakers and public officials, scoring well on international tests, particularly in math, means–and this is the mistaken leap that smart people make–that those graduating from high school and then college will have the essential skills and attitudes to be productive workers in ever-changing industries competing in global markets. The  economy will grow. Leaping from international test scores to productive workers and then economic growth is the error in the assumption. Yet that flawed assumption has driven school reform for the past thirty years.

With 78 percent of U.S. students graduating in 2010, a figure reached four decades earlier, and with nearly one out of four poor students dropping out of school when it used to be much higher, there should be bells ringing and chimes sounding. Surely, much work remains to be done in big cities and poor rural districts. I do not know why these trends have occurred since many factors are in play but, nonetheless, it is an achievement. Yet it goes unrecognized largely because–and here I am speculating– it challenges the dominant rhetoric of the past three decades about failing U.S. students–a badly damaged assumption that, sadly, remains intact.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Back to the Future: High School Graduation Rates

  1. Like you I have spent years speculating about achievement and comparisons between nations. Also like you I have always maintained a healthy skepticism about what we are measuring, how we are doing it and what it really means. The scores are partial indicators–good ones no doubt but still incomplete. There are so many questions:
    - how many countries really include all their students? Do they find convenient ways to exclude the ‘unwanted’ in order to keep their international profile (artificially) high?
    - just how badly penalized is the US by its willingness to take all comers regardless of language? After all a huge percentage of those test takers take the test in some language other than their first.
    - just how ‘useful’ is that ‘stuff’ on the tests anyway? Just because it was always there doesn’t mean it should be there…today.
    - what about the things we do not/can not test? So many things just do not lend themselves to pencil and paper. They, too, could be useful indicators.

    But most of all, when you consider the enormity of it all–the vastness of the country and the absolute HUGE range of: values, wealth, abilities, effort, commitment, etc.and the fact that we are still more less okay it’s hard not to realize that, all things considered, we are really not exactly in the dumpster just yet. :>)

    It’s just that there are some long term VERY HARD problems that we just can’t seem to crack. Worse, we can’t even seem to agree on what might be the best approach. That is quite a source of frustration, eh?

  2. Examining graduation rates is similar to exploring grades. The amount of grade inflation that has occurred in high schools and colleges is incredible. With that being said, graduation rates are very difficult to pin down, often, and when they have been determined, there is often a great deal of politics involved in the data.

    In Texas, graduation is related to passing the state tests. The scores on the state tests are not a precise measurement. As I am sure you have seen in the news, some of the tests can be passed with less than 50% correct answers. This determines graduation eligibility? It is also well known that state test results improve in election years… how weird?

    With grade inflation and test result inflation in the waning years of the TAKS test, which is changing to the STAAR tests, it is not amazing that graduation rates would increase.

  3. Pingback: Isn’t This Good News? | Social Justice and Education

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