Major gaps remain in grad rates between subgroups

Major gaps remain in grad rates between subgroups

(District of Columbia) While graduation rates have steadily increased throughout the country, the U.S. is still drastically lagging in improving the likelihood that at-risk students will receive a high school diploma within four years, according to new research.

Although the 2015 national graduation rate was slightly more than 83 percent, significant gaps remain among at-risk subgroups that include students of color, low-income youth, students with disabilities, and English learners.

These findings are reflected in the eighth annual GradNation report–the result of a joint effort between Civic Enterprises, the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University. The coalition reports on the status of the Obama administration’s goal of increasing high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020.

“In 2015, about half of the country reported high school graduation rates of 85 percent or higher, putting more states on track to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020,” John Bridgeland, president of Civic Enterprises and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “But our country must do more to achieve equity across state lines. It's time to sharpen our focus on the hardest to reach populations and work to elevate them to success.”

States have made concerted efforts in recent years to ensure students graduate ready to succeed academically in college or enter the workforce with some sort of skillset useful for a 21st century career. Still, gaps continue to persist for disadvantaged subgroups. And even among students who do graduate, the College Board found last year that fewer than half of those in the class of 2012 were actually prepared for the rigors of postsecondary education.

Minnesota is one of a handful of states that has seen graduation rates improve across student groups. Since 2011, graduation rates for students of color have increased by about 13 percentage points. During that time, graduation rates for white students, which remain higher than the average for all students, have increased by more than 3 percentage points.

Graduation rates for black students in the state have increased 59 percent since 2006, but American Indian students, who often have some of the lowest high school completion rates in the nation, have increased at less than half that pace–at about 24 percent over that same time period.

But in most of the country, such gains are few and far between, according to the new GradNation study.

The report, based on the most recent comprehensive data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, found disparities in a handful of areas.

Thirty-three states reported high school graduation rates for students with disabilities at below 70 percent, and many of those states had rates of less than 60 percent. In four states–Nevada, Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi–less than half of students with disabilities earned a high school diploma. In 29 states, there is a 20 percentage point difference in graduation rates between students with and without disabilities.

In almost 25 states the gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers is 15 percentage points or greater. Also troubling is that, although graduation rates among black students have increased 7.6 percentage points and 6.8 percentage points for Hispanic students, those subgroups comprise 54 percent of all students who did not graduate on time.

To help address those issues, researchers recommend that policymakers create high-quality Every Student Succeeds Act implementation plans that address equity gaps in graduation rates between subgroups; develop evidence-based plans to improve schools with low graduation rates; and strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools. 

Authors of the study did note that while there is still significant work to be done in closing those gaps, the overall improvement in graduation rates is a positive sign.

"National high school graduation rates increased four percentage points from 2010 to 2015,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and co-author of the report.

“That's more than just a data point–it means hundreds of thousands more young people are in a better position for post-secondary enrollment,” Balfanz said in a statement. “Now, as we move into the last leg of the campaign, we must double our progress if we are to meet our goal.”