By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
American high school students are focusing on their studies more than ever before and their graduation rates are the highest in history. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released graduation data for the class of 2015–16, which found that 84.1 percent of students graduated in four years the highest rate in American history. The 84 percent was just shy of a percentage point more than the previous year’s rate of 83.2 percent. The numbers continue a five-year trend that saw increases in graduation rates for every demographic group in the country.
According to the data, every group reached their highest graduation rates. Black students’ rates rose 1.8 percent to 76.4, those with English as a second language rose the same amount to 66.9. Hispanic students’ graduation rose also an impressive 1.5 percent to 79.3 percent. Additionally, students from economically challenged background rose the same rate up to a 77.6 percent graduation rate. Native student’s graduation rates also improved to 71.9 percent.
Students with disabilities still, had the lowest graduation rates with only 65.5 percent graduating, proving that more has to be done to help the group graduate. White students, however, were not the demographic group with the highest rates. Despite their 88.3 graduation rate, White students came in second to Asian students who have the nation best rates with 90.8 percent of students graduating high school.
Phillip Lovell, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education
Was pleased with the results. Lovell told Edweek, “This shows we are still heading in the right direction. You can argue that the pace of improvement is slower than we’d like it to be, but there are more graduates this year than last. That’s a good thing.” Lovell was especially impressed that the number rose across the board for all demographic groups, saying it was “super important.” Lovell added, “We don’t want to increase the national grad rate and leave behind kids who are struggling to be served.”
Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute credits President George W. Bush bipartisan education achievement the No Child Left Behind Act for the rise in rates with are now seeing. The test and assessment focused law education law was passed in 2001, Bush’s first year in office. Petrilli commented to Edweek, “There is a plausible case to be made that the education system is doing a better job for more of these kids, especially for disadvantaged subgroups.”
Despite the graduation increase of five percent overall in the last five years, and for all groups, there are still problems and graduation gaps. Black students lag behind most ethnic groups, with the exception of Native students, seeing a 14 percent difference with Asian students, who are at the top of all groups. The economically disadvantaged are also remain more educationally disadvantaged than their wealthier peers with a six-point difference between the two group’s graduation rates.
The graduation rates might be improving, but college readiness still has a lot to be desired. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEP) remains unchanged or has declining rates when it comes to reading and math. Additionally, students are not meeting benchmarks for the SAT and ACT college entrance exams.
The Washington Post reports the problems are exacerbated by some school districts who are using questionable means to “inflate” their graduation rates. The Post explains, “Some districts have used questionable methods to get students to the finish line, including softening grading scales and using credit recovery programs, which allow students to take abbreviated versions of courses to make up for failing grades.” Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher says that rate inflation is still a problem that needs to be combated. Balfanz told Edweek, “We can devalue anything if we give it away. We need to be sure these kids are earning honest diplomas.”
The data includes a break down for each state and also by demographic data. Iowa topped the country with the highest graduation rate at 91.3 percent; in second place is New Jersey with 90.1 percent. Iowa and New Jersey are the only two states with over 90 percent of the students graduating in four years. In third place is West Virginia with 89.8 percent. At the bottom, Washington, the District of Columbia has the worst rates with an average of only 69.2 percent. DC is followed by New Mexico with a 71 percent graduation rate, while the third worst state is Oregon with a 74.8 graduation rate.
Despite the highest graduation rates in history, the US is hardly a world leader and still lags behinds many of the world’s democratic countries. According to older Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data, the US ranks out of the top 20 at only the 21st position in the world. Portugal and Slovenia each tie for the highest graduation rate with 96 percent of the students graduating. Finland, Japan, and the United Kingdom round out the top five each has a rate of above 90 percent. The UK has a 92 percent graduation rate, while fellow North American country Canada also ranked higher than the US coming in the 20th position worldwide.
President Barack Obama emphasized increasing the high school graduation rates during his tenure. Starting in 2011, the Education Department under the Obama administration required all high schools to report their data in a “standardized way.” With the numbers, rising and steadily soaring to new heights in the latter part of Obama’s term, his administration saw the graduation rate increase according to the Washington Post “among its most important achievements in education.”
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.