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After 15 Years of Gains, For the First Time No State is Below 71 Percent, A Sign of Progress Toward Raising the National High School Graduation Rate

Press Release:

After 15 Years of Gains, For the First Time No State is Below 71 Percent, A Sign of Progress Toward Raising the National High School Graduation Rate


Tonya Williams,, 202-657-0644
Daria Hall,, 202-657-0621

Grad Nation Report Highlights Progress and Challenges Facing Key Student Subgroups and Low-Graduation-Rate Schools in the New ESSA-Era

 Examines Connections Between High School and Postsecondary Education as Nation Remains Off Pace to Reaching Goals

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In 2001, the national high school graduation rate stood at 71 percent. Fifteen years later – and for the first time ever, no state in the nation has a high school graduation rate below 71 percent and there are now 39 states above 80 percent, a major milestone toward reaching the country’s goal of a 90 percent graduation rate, according to the latest Building a Grad Nation report.

However, even with clear progress – and an additional three million students graduating rather than dropping out over that same time period – the country has more work to do to finish the job to reach its goal.

The 2018 Building a Grad Nation report is authored by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and released today in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Together, the four organizations lead the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce. This year’s report, presented by lead sponsor AT&T and supporting sponsor Lumina Foundation, is the ninth annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates.

“Thanks to the hard work taking place inside classrooms, living rooms, and boardrooms across the country, the nation continues to see steady growth of high school graduation rates on the state level, with most of those increases being driven by the increasing education attainment of Black and Hispanic students,” said John Bridgeland, president & CEO, Civic Enterprises. “But this year’s report comes at a turning point for the nation as the Every Student Succeeds Act becomes a reality and the power of accountability shifts from the federal government into the hands of states. We have work to do to ensure every student receives a quality education that prepares them for college, work, and civic engagement.”

“The high school graduation rate is still the best on-track indicator for young adults and remains a major milestone on an education continuum that starts at birth and lasts a lifetime,” said Jennifer DePaoli, senior researcher and policy advisor at Civic Enterprises and lead author of the report. “We’ve seen clear growth, but in this new age of ESSA, if we ever want to reach a more equitable path for all, we must make sure states continue to do the more challenging work of raising graduation rates for key groups of students that are still behind the national average.”

The report examines three key areas: high school data trends across the country, the state of high school graduation rates for the largest historically underserved student subgroups and the lowest performing high schools, and recognizing that high school graduation is a milestone rather than the final destination, the connection between high school and postsecondary pathways.

High School Graduation Trends Across the Nation.  Since the change to the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate in 2011, the country has seen continuous growth over the past five years, nearly cutting in half the number of states below the 80 percent mark. State-level progress over that time period is demonstrated in the following comparisons:

  • In 2011, five states reported graduation rates below 70 percent. In 2016, no state had a graduation rate below 71 percent.
  • In 2011, no state had achieved a 90 percent graduation rate, and only nine had a graduation rate above 85 percent. In 2016, two states reached the 90 percent goal (Iowa and New Jersey), and 25 other states reported a graduation rate above 85 percent.
  • The states with the lowest graduation rates in 2011 (62-73 percent) all experienced growth greater than the national average (5.1 percentage points), and the gap between the states with the highest graduation rate and the lowest has been reduced by six percentage points.
  • Overall, 18 states – many with large populations of Black, Hispanic, and low-income students – have largely driven progress nationally since 2011 and helped narrow national racial and income graduation rate gaps.

Reaching a 90 Percent Graduation Rate for Key Subgroups. While there has been steady growth across the board, each of the five key student subgroups – Black and Hispanic students, low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, and students who attend low-performing high schools – are still significantly lagging behind the rest of the nation. States and districts have the power to address the needs of each subgroup and provide a fair, comprehensive and equitable education.

  • Black and Hispanic Students. Black and Hispanic students continue to make graduation rate gains greater than the national average, but their overall graduation rate (76.4 and 79.3 respectively) is still below 80 percent. More states are increasing graduation rates for these students than ever before, but the gaps between them and White students remain significant (11.9 percentage points between Black and White students and 9 percentage points between Hispanic and White students).
  • Low-Income Students. While gaps between low-income and non-low-income students have decreased in the majority of states over the past six years, 16 states have actually seen the graduation rate gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers increase.

Furthermore, under ESSA, all states are now required to report disaggregated graduation rates for homeless students, a growing population. Reported rates for homeless students are among the lowest in the nation. Currently, eight states have publicly released those numbers, with the rest expected to follow in the next year.

  • Students with Disabilities. In 2016, just 65.5 percent of students with disabilities graduated in four years—making it the largest student subgroup with the least amount of growth since 2011 and the subgroup with the lowest graduation rate. Students with disabilities comprise significant proportions of the students not graduating on time in nearly every state and 26 states have graduation gaps between students with disabilities and general population students greater than the national average.
  • English Learners. English learners make up a small but fast-growing group of students, and their graduation rate (66.9 percent) continues to languish near the bottom of all student subgroups. A handful of states – New Mexico, California, Colorado, and Hawaii – had significant concentrations of English learners among their four-year non-graduates.
  • Low-Performing Schools. The number of low-graduation-rate high schools, schools with a graduation rate of 67 percent or below with at least 100 students enrolled, now stands at 2,425 in 2016. These schools represent 13 percent of all high schools and enroll approximately 7 percent of high school students. Low-graduation-rate high schools can primarily be found in urban and suburban areas, and within their student populations, Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are largely overrepresented. Interestingly, the report looks at types of schools producing the greatest numbers of four-year non-graduates in each state to provide a road map for states on where the majority of their non-graduates can be found – and, in some cases, where high graduation rates may be hiding them. ESSA requires states to identify low graduation rate high schools and districts must have plans to reform these schools.

“As states begin to act on their ESSA plans, they must be aware that in a growing number of cases, many of their non-graduates are not coming from low-grad-rate high schools, but from some of their better performing schools. This new data brings to light for state and district leaders a greater need to watch where their non-graduates are coming from and focus on enforcing accountability measures that support those schools,” said Bob Balfanz, director, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “It also reinforces the point that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to graduating more students on time, and that even the highest performing schools may be contributing to lower graduation rates.”

Examining the Connection between High School and Postsecondary. As states work to ensure more equitable outcomes for students that increase graduation rates, data affirms that a quality, postsecondary credential is increasingly essential on the path to adulthood. Since 2008, the share of Americans ages 25 to 64 that hold a credential beyond high school has increased 9 percentage points to a record high of 46.9 percent. However, the nation remains off-pace to reaching a 60 percent postsecondary goal by 2025. Young people’s experience during the high school years – through rigorous coursework and exposure to postsecondary options – is instrumental for them to access and succeed after high school.

Policy and Practice Recommendations. To help improve graduation rates, the authors recommend that policymakers and practitioners: 1) Continue to improve graduation rate data reporting and collection; 2) Promote policies and practices that reduce harmful disparities; 3) Align diplomas with college and career ready standards; 4) Support schools and districts with comprehensive support and improvement plans; 5) Avoid and eliminate practices that reduce expectations for students; 6) Create state-specific high school graduation plans; and 7) Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. The report also indicates the need for a deeper understanding of the use of credit recovery programs and alternative schools.

“A high school diploma is essential for young people to stay on track to successful life outcomes.  The progress we’ve seen on graduation rates is heartening. More and more young people are attaining this necessary credential. But the job isn’t done yet,” said John Gomperts, president & CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “To accelerate progress and help more young people reach their full potential, states, districts and communities must make high school graduation part of a clear pathway to success in school, work and life. Furthermore, accountability must be taken seriously so that inequities along that path do not persist unchecked.”

The Road to 90 and Beyond. The 2015-16 national high school graduation rate now stands at 84.1 percent – an all-time high. But this year marks the third consecutive year the country has not been on track to reach its 90 percent goal – a goal that would require graduating about 219,000 more young people on time than in 2016 and nearly doubling the annual rate of gain in recent years through 2020. To get on track, the national graduation rate must increase by 1.4 percentage points annually. In 2016, the rate went up just 0.9 percent.

“Reaching our goal is in the best interest of everyone. High school graduates are less likely to be unemployed, less likely to fall into the criminal justice system, and more likely to have positive life outcomes, including better health and a longer life span,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which just released new data on the economic benefits of graduating. “A high school diploma is not an end point, but a jumping off point to greater things—college, a career, or additional training—that benefit the individual, community, and the greater economy.”

Authors and sponsors. The 2018 Building a Grad Nation report is co-authored by Jennifer DePaoli, John Bridgeland, and Matthew Atwell of Civic Enterprises and Robert Balfanz at the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. AT&T, lead sponsor, has supported the Building a Grad Nation report series since its inception through AT&T Aspire, the company’s $400 million commitment since 2008 to graduate more students from high school ready for college and career. Lumina Foundation, which has been a leader in the field on postsecondary education, is a supporting sponsor.

Full report. To read the full report, access state and district data and other resources, visit:

Join the Livestream. Tune into Facebook Live on June 5 from 10-11:30 AM ET to watch leaders of the campaign and experts in the field discuss the report findings and latest developments.  Join the conversation here.

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Civic Enterprises is a public policy and strategy firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities, and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. Created to enlist the private, public and nonprofit sectors to help address our nation’s toughest problems, Civic Enterprises fashions new initiatives and strategies that achieve measurable results in the fields of education, civic engagement, economic mobility, and many other domestic policy

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education seeks to identify the barriers to high school graduation, develop strategic solutions to overcoming these barriers and build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions so that all students graduate prepared for adult success.

America’s Promise Alliance leads the nation’s largest network dedicated to improving the lives of children and youth. As its signature effort, the GradNation campaign mobilizes Americans to increase the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the 21st century workforce.

The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and

Categories: High School Graduation Rates and Secondary School Improvement

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