During the past sixteen years, the high school graduation rate for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has increased 22 percentage points and today, students are three times more likely to graduate as they are to drop out of high school. Although changes in student demographics account for some of that increase, most of the graduation rate increase is a result of students’ improved academic achievement before and during their high school years, according to a report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium).
The report, High School Graduation Rates Through Two Decades of District Change, examines how various factors, e.g., changes in the characteristics of students entering CPS, a new student record data system, on-track and credit recovery data reports, and other changes within CPS high schools themselves, influence high school graduation rates. However, it does not credit one change over another for helping Chicago high schools to improve. “These policies were often overlapping with each other and went through different stages and forms across the years, making it very difficult to discern exactly how each policy influenced graduation rates in combination with the others,” the report notes. Instead, the report focuses on “the degree to which the graduation rates represent real improvements.”
“What we found was that improvements in graduation rates can largely be attributed to the fact that students were doing better in their classes in high school,” explains Julia Gwynne, managing director and senior research scientist at the UChicago Consortium and coauthor of the report, in a podcast. “It appears that high schools were actually doing a better job of supporting their students in their classes from 2006 onward and this had a dramatic impact on overall graduation rates.”
Students from All Racial, Ethnic, and Socioeconomic Backgrounds Post High Graduation Rates
From 1998 to 2014, the percentage of nineteen-year-old students who graduated with a regular diploma increased from 52.4 percent to 74.8 percent. And while high school graduation rates increased for students from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, they did so at different rates. As a result, achievement gaps narrowed in some cases but expanded in others.
Among racial groups, white and Latino students experienced the greatest improvements. From 1998 to 2014, the high school graduation rate for white male students increased from 55 percent to 84 percent and the rate for white female students increased from 66 percent to 90 percent. Among Latino students, the high school graduation rate for male students increased from 48 percent to 76 percent, while the rate for female students increased from 59 percent to 83 percent. High school graduation rates for African American students increased the least—from 40 percent to 62 percent for male students and from 56 percent to 72 percent for female students. High school graduation rates for students from low-income families and students with disabilities also improved, increasing from 40 percent to 67 percent and from 37 percent to 68 percent respectively.
Mixed Impact on Graduation Rate Gaps Between Different Groups of Students
While the gap in high school graduation rates between white and Latino students remained relatively unchanged, with Latino students lagging behind white students by 7 or 8 percentage points over time, the gap between African American males and white males increased from 15 percentage points in 1998 to 22 percentage points in 2014. Among female students, the gap between African Americans and white students jumped from 10 percentage points to 18 percentage points. By contrast, the high school graduation rate gap between students from low-income families and affluent students declined from 24 percentage points to 15 percentage points, while the gap between students with and without disabilities also declined from 17 percentage points to 9 percentage points.
“Increase in Graduation Rates Is Not Due to Lowered Expectations”
According to the report, the average ACT score for CPS graduates increased from 16.7 in 2003 to 18.6 in 2014. Meanwhile, between School Years 1999–2000 and 2012–13, the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes increased fourfold and the proportion scoring 3 or better increased from 32 percent to 37 percent, the report adds. “Thus, not only are more students graduating, but graduates also have stronger academic qualifications than in the past, suggesting that the increase in graduation rates is not due to lowered expectations for student performance,” the report says.
Instead, the researchers attribute the higher graduation rates to improvements in students’ academic achievement, both before and during high school. Standardized test scores for rising ninth-grade students increased until 2006; the researchers determined that this accounts for the increases in high school graduation rates they observed during that same time period. After 2006, though, student test scores declined, but high school graduation rates continued to increase. The researchers determined that “improvements in ninth-grade course performance seem to account for the improvements in graduation rates in recent years,” the report says. Students in the most recent cohorts took more classes, completed more credits, earned higher grades, and attended school more regularly during their ninth-grade year than students with similar achievement levels in the past. Combined, these factors kept more students on track toward graduation and explains the subsequent improvements in the high school graduation rates for the later cohorts of students, the report says.
“The improvements in Chicago’s graduation rates suggest that sustained efforts can make a considerable difference for improving high schools, even when they serve the most disadvantaged communities,” the report says. “However, this means working against the many forces that make it difficult to show strong outcomes in low-income schools. It takes substantial and coordinated work to make this happen.”
High School Graduation Rates Through Two Decades of District Change is available at https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/high-school-graduation-rates-through-two-decades-district-change-influence-policies.
 Instead of following cohorts of students who entered ninth grade in the same year—the typical approach for calculating high school graduation rates—the report groups students by age, tracking those who turned fourteen in the same year until they turned nineteen. Such an approach was necessary because CPS changed its grade promotion requirements through the years, making ninth-grade cohorts of students not comparable over time. “This causes some cohorts to have higher graduation rates simply because many low-achieving students did not move on to ninth grade with their age peers, while other cohorts have lower graduation rates for the opposite reason,” the report explains. Consequently, the high school graduation rates highlighted in the report differ slightly from those calculated and reported by CPS.