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Good News On Graduation Rates…With a Caution Flag

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June 14, 2011 06:51 pm

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It’s early June and that means that the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center has released its latest edition of Diplomas Count—an independent source for high school graduation rate estimates that the Alliance and many other organizations rely on for comparable calculations across states and districts.

The news this year is quite good: the national graduation rate has increased to nearly 72 percent compared to 69 percent last year and 66 percent ten years ago. Even better, the graduation rates for each student subgroup have also improved over last year.

Of course, the good news comes with some bad. The graduation rates of American Indian (54 percent), Hispanic (58 percent), and black (57 percent) students still remain under 60 percent and far below those of their white (78 percent) and Asian (83 percent) peers.

Nevertheless, the results are a shot in the arm for education reform advocates who are struggling to beat the drum for reform policies in a new era of fiscal austerity and often find themselves facing the tough question “why should we invest in education when several decades of reform have not moved the needle?”

Looking down the road, however, it’s necessary to be prepared for some bumps that might emerge. The six percentage point increase over ten years that EPE reports is a noteworthy improvement, but it is always prudent to ask what the high school diploma actually represents. It’s no secret that many states have set less than ambitious bars for students to graduate, leaving many graduates with an education that does little to prepare them for their next steps after high school.

However, to date, forty-four states plus the District of Columbia have recently adopted and are now starting to implement the Common Core State Standards which are designed to make sure that high school graduates are college and career ready upon earning their diplomas—a much higher graduation standard than currently exists in many states. (Diplomas Count includes a scan of states’ graduation requirements but does not make determinations on how current state requirements for graduation compare to the Common Core.) In turn, it’s possible that the implementation of the Common Core may curb the upward trend in graduation rates that we have been enjoying because it raises the graduation bar.

But that’s ok. It’s going to take time to build up the infrastructure needed to reach the promise of the Common Core and that’s what many states are currently working hard to do. Increasing expectations of what students should know and be able to do by the time they complete high school requires ensuring that teachers are prepared to teach to those expectations and that assessments are available to measure those expectations, among other necessary pieces. This work takes time. But, states are also working to make sure students who are the furthest from meeting these new standards get timely extra support in order to minimize the likelihood of a drop in graduation rates after the Common Core are implemented.

By no means is this possible speed bump on the road to higher graduation rates an argument against raising standards. To be sure, a 100 percent graduation rate means nothing if the diplomas it represents are hollow. The promise of the Common Core is of immense value to students—it will ensure that students walk across the graduation stage prepared to continue directly on to careers and higher education without needing expensive and discouraging remediation. Therefore, no matter what, we must hold our resolve to increase the value of a diploma while still working to increase the graduation rate.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.