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BELOW THE SURFACE: New Alliance Report Reveals Nation’s Hidden High School Graduation Rate Crisis

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While stressing the importance of local decision making, Below the Surface calls on Congress to include identification—and support for—poorly performing high schools among its priorities as it works to rewrite ESEA.

Below The Surface CoverThe U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 81.4 percent, but a new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education finds that more than 1,200 high schools nationwide graduate less than two-thirds of their students. These high schools enroll more than 1.1 million students nationwide, with students of color and low-income students making up the majority of students who attend them. The report, Below the Surface: Solving the Hidden Graduation Rate Crisis, calls on the U.S. Congress to focus on these lowest-performing high schools as it works to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

“Having the national high school graduation rate at an all-time high is something to celebrate, but it is too soon to jubilantly cut down the basketball nets,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “I appreciate the bipartisan effort taking place to improve NCLB—America’s students have been in overtime for eight years waiting for a rewrite. Unfortunately, the draft bill released by U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray requires states to identify the nation’s lowest-performing high schools, but it does not require states to improve them. As it works to rewrite ESEA, the Congress should target funding for school improvement and provide states and school districts with resources to turn around high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent.”

According to the report, high schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent exist in nearly every state—nineteen states have at least twenty such schools. California and New York have 105 and 199 of these schools, respectively, while southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, have more than fifty; Georgia has 115.

These high schools predominantly, and disproportionately, enroll traditionally underserved students. In Michigan, for example, African American students represent only 18.4 percent of K–12 students in the state, but they account for 69.1 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools. In Massachusetts, Hispanic students represent 16.4 percent of K–12 students, but they account for 51.3 percent of the student population in the lowest-performing high schools.

Nationally, of the more than 1.1 million students attending these low-graduation-rate high schools,

  • 40 percent of students are African American, even though African American students make up less than 15.7 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population;
  • only 26 percent of students are white, even though white students make up 51 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population; and
  • 70 percent are students from low-income families, even though students from low-income families make up 50 percent of the overall K–12 public school student population.

While stressing the importance of local decision making, Below the Surface calls on Congress to include identification—and support for—poorly performing high schools among its priorities as it works to rewrite ESEA.

“In keeping with the Congress’s focus on state flexibility, ESEA should not prescribe the specific interventions to be implemented in low-performing high schools,” said Wise. “Rather, state- and school-level officials should determine which evidence-based interventions fit their needs based on the educational challenges each school faces.”

The report includes examples of high schools in New York City, Chicago, Miami, and Talladega County, Alabama, that are using effective solutions such as early-warning systems, personalized learning environments, and dropout recovery to significantly increase the number of low-income students and students of color graduating from high school ready for college and a career.

The report, which includes state-by-state data on the number of low-performing schools and demographic information on the students they enroll, is available at https://all4ed.org/reports-factsheets/belowthesurface/.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.