Graduate walking in gown, holding her cap


Leaders Tackle Challenges, Solutions in Latest Building a Grad Nation Report

In 2001, the national high school graduation rate stood at 71 percent. Today, no state in the nation has a high school graduation rate below that number. Furthermore, there are now 39 states above 80 percent.

This data comes from the 2018 Building a Grad Nation report, which was released last week at an event at America’s Promise Alliance and analyzes both progress and challenges in raising the nation’s high school graduation rate every year.

“As the national story line continues to show hope, states need to dig deeper to understand which districts are succeeding and failing and why, and where most of their non-graduates are coming from,” said former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when reached for comment. "The dropout challenge continues for America and we need a smart, second act.”

“The data and insight that we get from the Grad Nation report help put together a collective roadmap to figure out the best direction we need to go to help more kids walk across the graduation stage,” said Kelem Butts at the release event. Butts is director of charitable operations at AT&T, lead sponsor of the report which has been supported by the company since its inception through AT&T Aspire.

The report provides policymakers and practitioners with the guidance and recommendations needed to continue to make progress toward raising the high school graduation rate to 90 percent, the goal of the GradNation campaign.

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Some of those recommendations include improving data collection, focusing on social and emotional learning, and tackling disparities head on.

“We know that 1.6 million students in our schools have school law enforcement officers but no school counselors,” said Lillian Lowery, vice president for prek-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust and a panelist at the event. “How do we help these students if our priority is to police them rather than to counsel them?”

One of this year’s most surprising findings is that a high percentage of young people dropping out of school can be found not in the nation’s lowest performing high schools, but the highest—those with graduation rates above the national average of 84 percent.

“As states begin to act on their ESSA plans, they must be aware that in a growing number of cases, many of their non-graduates are not coming from low-grad-rate high schools, but from some of their better performing schools,” said Bob Balfanz, director, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education and co-author of the report.

“This new data brings to light for state and district leaders a greater need to watch where their non-graduates are coming from and focus on enforcing accountability measures that support those schools,” he continued. “It also reinforces the point that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to graduating more students on time, and that even the highest performing schools may be contributing to lower graduation rates.”

Each year, the Grad Nation report examines how key student subgroups are doing. While there has been steady progress, students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners, and students in low-performing high schools continue to graduate at lower rates than their peers. And in many states the difference in the quality of the high school diploma can be hurting their chances of graduating prepared for any future academic pursuits.

“Underserved students are earning the least rigorous diploma pathway provided by the states,” said Monica Almond, a panelist at the event and senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education. “So the graduation rate looks excellent, in a way, but the students do not have the course load to truly enroll in their first year of post-secondary education.”

In the report, lead author, Jennifer DePaoli, who is the senior research and policy advisor at Civic Enterprises, stated, “It is simply impossible to look at the data on educational outcomes without understanding the larger forces that are in play for so many of our nation’s children. This is why we, along with many others, have been drawing attention to the outcome disparities that are evident at every point on the educational spectrum.”

A new recommendation in the report focuses on looking at the connection between high school, postsecondary education and career options. This includes both aligning high school diplomas with college and career standards and strengthening the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers.

“K-12 education leaders can ease the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers by creating alignment between high school and college entry requirements, helping students understand their postsecondary options and the application process, and providing greater access to early college, career academies, and CTE coursework pathways,” the report says.

Translating research into action, one panelist from Los Angeles shed light on how her community improved the graduation rate at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School from 66 percent to 95 percent over a 6-year period and with a significant student population of English learners.

Deycy Hernandez, director of Promesa Boyle Heights, a collaborative of residents, organizations, and schools working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A., and a recipient of the America’s Promise GradNation Acceleration Grant, shared:

“It wasn’t one organization or one individual coming together. It really required a shared vision, a shared analysis of the data. Which were the students that need help and which were the schools that need the support? It was really bringing together the community power.”

As America’s Promise President and CEO John Gomperts said at the report’s release, experts have known for years what it takes to raise graduation rates—data, hard work, collaboration, resources of both time and money—what’s needed now is the will.

“We have seen states, districts, schools, communities figure out how to raise graduation rates, even in some very, very challenging places,” he continued. “If we have the know-how, but not the will, that’s on us. We can’t shrug our shoulders—especially when we’ve seen that success is possible.”

To read the full list of recommendations, you can download the report here.

About the Building a Grad Nation Report

Authored by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and released annually in partnership with the Alliance for Excellent Education and America’s Promise Alliance, the Building a Grad Nation report examines both progress and challenges toward reaching the GradNation campaign goal of a national on-time graduation rate of 90 percent. AT&T, lead sponsor, has supported the report series since its inception through AT&T Aspire, the company’s $400 million commitment since 2008 to graduate more students from high school ready for college and career. Lumina Foundation, which has been a leader in the field on postsecondary education, is a supporting sponsor.

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