This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.
For the second year in a row, the United States remains off pace to reach a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by 2020, according to the 2017 Building a Grad Nation report.
The nation must double its progress to reach its goal and, most notably, focus on closing equity gaps for specific subgroups of students who are graduating at lower rates than their peers: low-income students, students with disabilities, Black and Hispanic/Latino students, and English Language Learners. The report also called out low-graduation-rate high schools as an important focus area.
“To get to 90, four out of the five kids graduating have to be low-income,” said Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University Director Bob Balfanz at an event showcasing the data’s release on May 3. He added that after low-income students, students with disabilities need the most support.
Anthony Terrell, principal at Mount Vernon High School, said English Language Learners in particular face challenges to graduating, often because of the time it takes to master academic language and work obligations that take priority over school.
Though the report lays out stark challenges in closing the equity gap, panelists at the event said there is much cause for optimism, including an increased awareness of who needs the most help thanks to more data and research on the issue.
The report itself offers the following policy recommendations to reach 90 percent for all students by 2020.
1. Create high-quality ESSA implementation plans and maintain accountability for underserved students. To ensure that states create high-quality ESSA implementation plans, the report advises states to stick to the statute on identifying low-graduation-rate high schools as those with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, continue to use the four-year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) in this determination, and give substantial weight to graduation rates in state accountability plans.
2. Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools. States and school districts should adopt evidence-based practices, like implementing early warning systems to identify and support students who are off track based on their attendance, behavior, and course performance records, making social and emotional learning a part of the curriculum, and providing students with high-quality postsecondary and workforce engagement opportunities.
“Where you’re seeing [the equity gap] the most is in these low-graduation-rate high schools,” said lead author of the report Jennifer DePaoli at the GradNation event, adding that these schools tend to be high-poverty and segregated. But she added that schools alone cannot take responsibility for meeting the needs of these students.
“This is a community issue,” she said. “It’s a state issue. Everybody has to be involved. It cannot just be the schools.”
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3. Get the cohort rate right. Though the report calls the ACGR (the common formula used to collect and report high school graduation rates) the “gold standard,” it says there is still room for improvement that would provide greater uniformity and transparency.
4. Report extended-year graduation rates. Requiring states to report extended-year graduation rates for students graduating in five and six years would create a policy and financial incentive for schools and districts to keep off-track students in school and re-engage those who may have dropped out.
Last year’s Building a Grad Nation report found that including extended-year graduation rates raised the national average by roughly four percentage points. It could also provide a clearer picture of how many students ultimately earn a high school diploma.
5. Strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools. While some states and districts have created high-quality alternative accountability systems, the report says that too many alternative schools and programs are skirting accountability. “To ensure young people have access to the best possible alternative options, greater efforts must be made to strengthen accountability for these schools,” says the report.
6. Convene a next generation governors’ summit on high school and postsecondary completion. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened governors to establish a set of national K-12 education goals to be achieved by 2020. Then in 2005, all 50 state governors agreed to voluntarily implement the common, four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate formula, with all states committing to reporting graduation rates using this metric by 2010.
The GradNation event releasing the report offered a state perspective from Minnesota, which has made progress in closing its gaps and received support from the GradNation State Activation initiative. Charlene Briner, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said it’s important to strike a balance between “maintaining urgency and staying the course.”
“To expect something to change overnight is unrealistic,” she said, advising leaders “to stay the course for what we know works.”
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Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.
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