Making Sense of High School Graduation Rates


High school graduation rates have been the source of a lot of news coverage -- and conflicting emotions -- in the past few weeks.

President Obama and more than a dozen governors hailed increasing graduation rates in their annual addresses. At the same time, leading journalists and policy wonks have raised questions about those very gains and about the value of a high school diploma.

How to make sense of this optimism and skepticism? Let's take it one step at a time.

First, there is no denying the progress in graduation rates. Just 10 years ago, the nation's on-time high school graduation rate was hovering just over 70 percent, where it had been stuck for decades. Today the graduation rate is 82.3 percent, the highest in history. And significantly, we've seen the greatest increases among students of color and students from low-income families.

As a result of this increase, nearly 2 million additional students have graduated from high school over the past decade. That's great news for those young people, their families and their communities.


Photograph courtesy of Communities in Schools (CIS)

It is also a significant success story for the nation. At a time when it's common to lament that we can't get along and can't get anything done, the increase in high school graduation tells a different story. This is a bipartisan success story that spans the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and owes a great deal to their Secretaries of Education Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan.

Spellings and Duncan shared a passion, drive and determination to improve graduation rates. Both called the nation to better outcomes for all students, created accountability systems, and devoted energy and resources to creating the conditions that helped more young people succeed in school.

This is also a success story written at kitchen tables, in schools and in communities where students, families, educators and leaders of nonprofits, churches and businesses did the hard work to produce better results. No one should disparage the efforts of people who are taking this challenge seriously.

There is no magic to this work. The progress that's been made is a testament to the fact that so many people subscribed to a big goal, changed their expectations and behaviors, and stuck with it over time.

Still, this is hardly a spike-the-football moment. Each year, nearly 500,000 young people leave high school without graduating. And we still see sobering graduation gaps for key student groups -- students of color, young people from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. The data provide a clear map showing us where we need to concentrate our efforts going forward.

In addition, leading media outlets and respected commentators have raised serious and troubling questions. Are some districts lowering the bar or cooking the books to increase graduation rates? What does it mean when states discontinue or change high school exit exams? Should diplomas certify that all graduates are college ready?

There are no easy answers, and these questions deserve close examination.

Overall, the evidence shows that in most places high school graduation rates and more rigorous standards are rising together. Documented examples of gaming the system are comparatively rare and don't involve enough students to have a major impact on graduation rates.

While some see the elimination of exit exams as an indication of lower standards, research indicates that in some states, like California, exit exams have negatively impacted graduation rates without improving student achievement. And several studies show that grade point average is a better predictor of success in college than standardized tests anyway.

Still vigilance is warranted. The real goal is not just to graduate more young people, but to keep more young people on the path to adult success. Giving false diplomas or passing students who aren't ready doesn't serve the larger purpose or do anyone any favors.

That's why those of us working to increase graduation rates are equally forceful in insisting that we must continue to raise the bar and the value of a diploma.

In today's economy, a high school diploma doesn't guarantee success, but the lack of a diploma consigns a young person to almost certain failure. It is our responsibility to prevent young people from forfeiting and foreclosing their futures.

We've demonstrated that progress is possible, and now we must redouble our efforts to help millions more young people get and stay on track to adult success.


Photograph courtesy of Communities in Schools (CIS)

*This post originally appeared on

John Gomperts is president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, a leader of the GradNation campaign.