Our nation’s graduation rate is at an all-time high. The national figure shows 84 percent of young people overall graduating from high school within four years after first entering the 9th grade, a trend that has been on a consistent upswing since these rates were first collected for the 2010-2011 school year.
Still, despite much progress with that indicator, major gaps still exist. And there is great concern that the graduation rate hype not only masks those gaps, but distracts us from what must be our ultimate goal: ensuring all students earn a high school degree and are college and career ready.
Even as overall graduation rates improve, Black and Brown students continue to lag behind that curve. Graduation rates for African-American students are 76.4 percentage points — 8 percentage points behind the national average — and Latino students are at 79.3 percent. Native American students fare even worse at just 72 percent graduation. Meanwhile, White and Asian students are anywhere from four to six points higher than the national average.
None of us can reasonably expect the closure of inequality gaps if we’re simply satisfied with overall graduation rates while resigned to stubborn achievement gaps. Yet, it seems as if we’re in a phase whereby these disparities are being treated as normal — “the way it is” — as opposed to addressing a larger parity problem.
We have to ask ourselves: are we having a responsible and responsive conversation about high school graduation?
According to America’s Promise Alliance most recent Building a Grad Nation report, “Twenty-three states have Black-White graduation rate gaps larger than the national average, including five states — Wisconsin, Nevada, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio — where the gap is more than 20 percentage points … Twenty-four states have Hispanic/White graduation rate gaps that exceed the national average, and in two states — Minnesota and New York — the gap is more than 20 percentage points.”
The persistent normalcy of lower achievement among certain disadvantaged student populations is deeply troubling. Closing those gaps should be as important — if not more — than simply raising overall graduation rates.
At the same time, graduation rates can be used to unfairly malign schools that are serving underprivileged youth and, in fact, helping at-risk students earn a high school diploma. Alternative schools are singled out for having four-year cohort graduation rates that are generally lower than the national average, but left out of the conversation is how these schools are intentionally designed to serve credit-deficient transfer students and former dropouts at risk of never earning a diploma at all.
Measuring how well schools are graduating students is important, but it should be done right, and must not create disincentives for schools to serve credit-deficient students or dropouts looking for a second chance. After all, what is more important for these students: graduating or graduating “on time”? It’s why graduation rate calculations should be reformed altogether so schools are held accountable for students’ annual progress toward graduation every year, not just in the fourth year of high school.
Sadly, the drive to meet on-time graduation has led to recent cases of manipulation and fraud, which, of course, is wrong, but it also misses the primary purposes of high school altogether: preparing students for higher education, careers, and the workforce. The linkage between these goals — graduation and college and career readiness — is crucial for broader national competitiveness. Graduating students is meaningless if they are not prepared.
The numbers of high school students heading into remedial courses in their first year of college are staggering, and the gaps between varying demographics are even more troubling. Nearly 60 percent of African-American students, according to the Center for American Progress, are forced to enroll in non-credit remedial classes in college, compared to 45 percent of Latino students and 35 percent of White students. This means that Black first-year college students, already burdened the most by rising college costs and loan debt, are taking on a greater share of the $1.3 billion wasted on non-credit remedial courses.
There is no one silver bullet that will solve our nation’s graduation problem, but we can start by realigning graduation standards to the expectations of colleges, career training programs, industries and jobs, and developing competency-based, personalized learning paths for students unconstrained by four-year cohorts. And we must finally address funding gaps that exist for too many alternative schools working to eliminate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Addressing this complex challenge requires a mix of other solutions, too — improved learning models and instruction, greater support for our teachers, innovative technology, and increased services to disenfranchised students groups. But none of this can happen without educators, policymakers and business leaders willing to engage in honest and constructive conversations, and then pledging to act.
A rising graduation rate is worth celebrating. But let’s not become complacent.
Nate Davis is the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors at K12 Inc., an online education provider for students in pre-K through 12th grade.