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The Truth About America’s Graduation Rate


In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama said,

“More of our kids are graduating than ever before.”

Great news! Maybe.

rising numbers

Graduation rates have been rising since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act required states to improve their high school graduation rates. In 2005, the states agreed on a uniform measure of the grad rate. That meant tracking students all four years they’re in school.

But why so much improvement?

To find out, NPR Ed enlisted the help of 14 reporters at member stations around the country. We identified three major ways that states and districts try to improve their graduation rates.

  • 1 Stepping in early to keep kids on track.
  • 2 Lowering the bar by offering alternate and easier routes when students falter.
  • 3 Gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them.
1. Stepping in early

One way to make sure kids graduate is to help them at a younger age. That’s what kept Korey Thomas on track after he almost failed ninth grade.

Stepping in early

Korey Thomas

Thomas got help from a “graduation coach” — a teacher named David Harvey at his school in suburban Atlanta. Coaches like Harvey support the same students all four years.

“If I didn’t have someone like him to keep me on track, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Georgia started its coaching program in 2006 but defunded it four years later. Henry County, where Thomas goes to school, has found private donors to keep it going. And it seems to help: Henry County’s graduation rate is 7 percentage points higher than the state’s.

Stepping in early

Delonna Jones

Early intervention can and should start before high school. Experts say you can predict children’s chances of graduating high school as early as third grade. The warning signs are known as the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course performance.

Delonna Jones, 10, struggles with all three. She is homeless and repeating the third grade at Ketcham Elementary in Washington, D.C. The school provides mental health services, free bus and train passes for parents and even an after-school food pantry. D.C.’s graduation rate, at 62%, is still the worst in the nation — but it’s been improving in recent years.

Stepping in early

Roy and Dude Rabedeau

Oregon has the nation’s second-worst graduation rate, at 69%. One school is intervening at an even younger age: preschool.

A major study found that low-income students who attended preschool were much more likely to graduate than those who did not.

Take the Rabedeau brothers, for example. Roy, 5, goes to preschool at Earl Boyles Elementary on Portland’s working-class eastern edge. Dude, 8, started at Earl Boyles before it had a preschool.

“It’s pretty clear that Dude didn’t have that preschool experience,” says their mother, Debra. “Roy is a social guy. At the same time, he’s very independent, and he’s very interested in learning. I think there’s a difference there for sure.”

2. Lowering the Bar

A second way states can raise their grad rates is to give faltering students some alternatives.

Lowering the Bar

James Hanks

Alabama has had one of the nation’s steepest climbs in graduation rates: 8 percentage points in two years. State Superintendent Tommy Bice attributes the rise in part to “a new level of flexibility that’s led to locally tailored programs.”

These include alternative learning centers where most of the instruction takes place on computers. After James Hanks dropped out of school in Birmingham, he enrolled at one. Hanks was able to attend for just a few hours a day and keep his job at a steel plant.

He graduated this spring.

Lowering the Bar

Kevin Mahone

Are second chances always good?

Kevin Mahone is a junior at a “turnaround school” in Detroit. He’s a star football player whose goal is to make it out of his neighborhood and become a doctor or lawyer.

But on his mid-semester progress report, he failed four classes. Mahone says he’s not too worried, though, because he’s going to ask his teachers for “all this extra credit.”

Extra credit often isn’t enough. More than a third of students at Mahone’s school are also in something called credit recovery.

Almost nine out of 10 school districts in the U.S. provide some form of credit recovery. Increasingly that means online courses provided by outside software vendors.

That’s good for graduation rates. But, says Daria Hall of The Education Trust, “some of these credit recovery programs frankly aren’t terribly rigorous and aren’t preparing students well for what’s next.”

Lowering the Bar

Elizabeth Carter

“I didn’t want to be a burden, so I dropped out.”

Elizabeth Carter, 21, got married and dropped out two years ago. Thanks to a dropout-prevention coach, she re-enrolled at her high school in Clinton, N.C. She graduates this month. Her goal: Move to Florida and cook Cuban cuisine.

Carter only had to make up two classes for her second chance. The diploma she earned required just 22 credits instead of the more typical 28. But it won’t qualify her to get into a four-year university in the state — only community college. Twenty-one states offer some form of alternative diploma, which is counted in graduation rates.

Lowering the Bar

“I think they’ve diluted what the diplomas are,” says Russell Rumberger, a dropout expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

3. Gaming the System

Texas is tied with a few other states with the second-highest graduation rate in the country: 88%.

Gaming the System

Jaye McCurtain

But that figure excludes lots of students — more than 50,000 in the most recent four-year cohort.

This brings us to the third strategy states use to improve graduation rates: getting students off the books. There are many ways to do it — for example, by reporting that a student is getting a GED, or that they returned to Mexico, or that they’re being home-schooled. Texas requires minimal documentation for all these cases.

In middle school in San Antonio, Jaye McCurtain was bullied. So she told her mom she wanted to be home-schooled for high school. Her mother withdrew her — but never signed up for online classes.

“We couldn’t find any other options for me,” says McCurtain, 18. She’s a dropout, for now, but the state doesn’t count her as one. She’s simply off the books.

The Texas Education Agency defends the graduation rate and says that the documentation requirements are a compromise with school districts. Experts like Julian Vasquez Heilig at California State University, Sacramento, argue that these practices make the rate “bogus.”

Gaming the System

Raynard Gillispie

In Chicago, schools have found a different way to get struggling students off the books.

Two years ago, Raynard Gillispie got kicked out of high school on Chicago’s West Side.

Gillispie was shot. He almost died. But he didn’t give up on school. Gillispie, 21, now attends an “alternative school.” It’s a public school, but it’s operated by Camelot Education, a for-profit company.

Alternative schools are an ambiguous strategy. Gillispie says that “it’s been life-changing.” But they also give districts a place to “get rid of kids not likely to graduate,” says Russell Rumberger, the dropout expert. “Many alternative schools are terrible,” agrees Nettie Legters, another urban education expert.

Gaming the System

A WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago investigation recently found that the Chicago district is misclassifying hundreds of students who enroll at alternative schools such as Camelot, by saying they left the district. That means they’re never counted as dropouts. On the other hand, if they do manage to get a diploma, sometimes the original school still counts them as a graduate.

No Exit

And there’s one more wrinkle in grad rate math: Most states now require exit exams, often in several subjects. It’s an attempt to protect the diploma’s value. This can put barriers in the path to graduation, but often there are workarounds.

No Exit
New York via WSKG

Tayshaun Williams, in Binghamton, N.Y., has failed the global history Regents exam twice. He went to “twilight school” to cram.

New Jersey via WNYC

Dashon Burton, an honor roll student in Camden, N.J., passed an alternative exam, which is supposed to be easier, after five total attempts.

California via KQED

Deyri Rabadan is a Mexican immigrant struggling to learn English in Oakland, Calif. She passed the exit exam on the seventh try.

Florida via WLRN

Brandon Lewis, in Miami, failed Florida’s Algebra I final exam eight times. His mother’s a math teacher.

No Exit

With exit exams, states are trying to reconcile two contradictory impulses: Raise educational standards, while also providing lots of chances to meet them. But in practice, with all the retakes, many kids are “marginally passing,” says Rumberger.

All these strategies — good, bad and ambiguous — raise the question: What does a high school diploma mean? What should it mean?

It used to prepare you for a job at a living wage. Now it’s often simply a step to further education or training.

Make the bar too high and students are denied opportunity. Make the bar too low and the diploma becomes devalued.

So, what’s the truth about that 81% graduation rate?

“I think that’s a real number, and it’s based on a pretty good measure. I’m doing a happy dance,” says Nettie Legters, an original member of the 2005 task force that set the current graduation rate formula.

“I think we have to take it with a big grain of salt,” says Daria Hall of The Education Trust. “It’s a lot better than it used to be; we used to have no confidence in graduation rates.”

“The only people who believe that it’s [over] 80% are probably the politicians who are telling us that,” says Julian Vasquez Heilig. “And maybe they don’t even believe it.”

The data behind the story

As this project makes clear, high school graduation rates are still highly subjective numbers. Throughout this project, we cited individual state data reports and the National Center for Education Statistics. Want more details on what’s happening in your state? We used data from Achieve and the NCES Common Core of Data to create this searchable database.

Learn more about what’s happening in high schools in your state

Christopher Groskopf/NPR
Project Credits

This story was the result of a nationwide collaboration with NPR member stations. It was reported by Anya Kamenetz (NPR), Martha Dalton (WABE), Kavitha Cardoza (WAMU), Rob Manning (OPB), Dan Carsen (WBHM-FM), Jennifer Guerra (Michigan Radio), Reema Khrais (WUNC), Kate McGee (KUT), Becky Vevea (WBEZ), Sarah Gonzalez (WNYC), Solvejg Wastvedt (WSKG), Zaidee Stavely (KQED), John O’Connor (WLRN), Kevin McCorry (WHYY) and Amy Hansen (Ideastream). It was illustrated by LA Johnson; produced by Becky Lettenberger, Claire O’Neill, Tyler Fisher, Wes Lindamood and Elissa Nadworny; and edited by Steve Drummond and Cory Turner.

Date Published: 6/5/15