High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True?


Over on the StatChat blog, Hamilton Lombard draws attention to the steady rise in high school graduation rates across Virginia. The percentage of graduating seniors was significantly higher in 2013 than 2008 for all major ethnic groups, most appreciably for blacks and Hispanics. That’s good news, as Lombard says, because a high school diploma opens up opportunities for higher paying jobs. This, along with the plummeting rate of teen pregnancies and drop in youth, bodes well for the employment prospects of lower-income citizens.

It’s less than clear, however, what accounts for the surge in graduation rates. Lombard doesn’t have a definitive answer. He suggests a possible link to the decline in teen pregnancies and youth crime, which allow students to remain in school and stay on track to graduate. Also, he observes, high youth unemployment rates may reduce the appeal of dropping out.

It’s even possible that drop-out prevention programs are working. However, there is one factor that I fear may account for much of the seeming improvement: Schools are engaging in more social promotion. The more the drop-out rate is followed as a measure of school performance, the more administrators have an incentive to push students through the system whether they meet the grade or not. We have seen how school officials increasingly encourage “teaching to the test” to improve standardized test scores. It should not surprise us if they were gaming the system to improve graduation rates as well.

Let me emphasize: I do not know that to be a fact. I hope that my fears are misplaced. But I think it’s something we need to dig into before we congratulate ourselves on the awesome improvement we’re seeing. We do no one any favors by giving students a degree if they have not mastered the body of knowledge required of a graduate — not employers, not students, not society at large.


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4 responses to “High School Graduation Rate, Too Good to Be True?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I have the same concerns but I heard something the other day that gave me pause.

    A teacher commented that his HS school had created remedial reading and math classes…and it was one of the more tough teaching assignments and definitely not for the average teacher and the goal was to get them to graduate.

    Additionally there is data that is starting to show that in multi-school jurisdictions that there can be wide disparities in the capabilities of the kids in the different high schools.

    Unlike others who think vouchers can fix this -I do not.

    Few, if any, for-profit or charters are going want to accept a discounted voucher to a take a 15 year old who has essentially a 5th grade education and do what it takes to get him graduated.

    The schools, in general, cater to the kids whose parents are effective advocates for them. Kids from broken families and/or parents who don’t have good educations and are on the edge economically – do not push their kids nor advocate for their needs and the school systems tend to the sqeaky wheels.

    And I think few parents really understand the fundamental purpose of why taxes pay for public education – an employable workforce – that does not need entitlements.

    Parents advocate for their kids – and they should – but the parents who worry about our deficit and debt and our growing entitlement burden – seem to be blind to how it happens…

    Schools always have less resources than they’d like – but when push comes to shove – they fund the Advanced Placement program instead of the remedial math program – or even more fundamental – head start, pre-K and TItle 1.

    In many schools – there would be no Title 1 programs for at risk kids if the Feds did not provide that money.

    I’m coming around to the point of view – that the State needs to further fund schools – not the locality and the state needs to define whether a given school has to have remedial courses or not – and fund them and not let the local school board choose to fund something else instead.

    and here’s the other thing that grumps me.

    if you try to go read a school budget document and figure out how much money they are devoting to core academics – for the local discretionary money – forget it. Henrico, Spotsylvania and other counties spend tens of millions of dollars of discretionary money not mandated by the state by try to find out what it is spent for.

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    The timing alone would force one to wonder if there is a link to the welfare reform efforts of the mid 1990s, under Gov. Allen in VA and then President Clinton at the national level. An 18 year old today was born in 1996. There is a greater emphasis on keeping students from dropping out, even if that means alternative programs or multiple repeats. But there remain many, many ways to game the stats, too, and just ask the community colleges about the weak preparation level they are seeing in many HS grads.

    And I disagree with Larry, and think if you dig you will find it is the advanced programs that are suffering in the budget these days because they are not mandated by law — whereas programs for special ed or disabled children are mandated.

    1. larryg Avatar

      forget the community colleges! 4-year colleges are seeing 20% of their freshmen failing no only 12 grade material but AP material.

      and 20% of high school graduates cannot meet the minimum educational skill standards for acceptance.

      it’s not just the marginal high school graduates… it’s most all of them including the ones that have taken AP.

      there are a few kids that are exemplary and excel but the vast majority of kids (and their parents) do not want their kids taking the more robust courses.. to start with.. for fear of diminishing their scores needed to get into their desired colleges and the schools, before the advent of NCLB did not care if the low performers dropped off the end of the earth – but now that they have to show the percentages that did drop off the end of the earth.

      The schools pretty much reflect what parents want… and the irony is that they do that – even when it’s not good for their own kids..

      I would say that “social” promotion is not just one demographic. It’s rampant.

      When a kid takes a AP track and ends up in college unable to take the follow-on courses.. that’s as bad or worse than socially promoting the kids on the fringe.

  3. William Fralin Avatar
    William Fralin

    A very small part could be what gets measured gets done.


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