Grad embracing father


In the Full Story of Graduation Rates, Ballou is Only a Chapter

President & CEO, America's Promise Alliance

Last summer, Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. received national attention and praise because 100 percent of its graduating seniors had been accepted to college.

A few months later, reports from WAMU and NPR brought into question whether the Ballou success was legitimate. Did students who were routinely absent still graduate? Were teachers pressured into passing students? Was the school graduating students who weren’t meeting even minimum learning requirements?  The original story spawned further reporting, and then a series of hearings and investigations and repercussions.

For those of us who have worked on the GradNation campaign, the coverage has challenged us to reflect and question our own role in this story. What are the unintended consequences of setting an ambitious goal?  How can we do better? What does this story, and the story of other schools now being investigated, mean for the broader story of our national progress? 

To answer those questions, it’s worth remembering the purpose and progress of graduation rates in this country.

Five Reasons Graduation from High School Matters

When the GradNation campaign set a goal of a 90 percent on-time graduation rate by 2020, we set out to spur students, parents, schools, and communities to take actions to keep more young people on the path to success. The objective was never to simply hit a number; the goal has always been to push everyone’s aspirations higher, and then to muster the attention and effort necessary to help more young people succeed in school and life.

We’ve been watching how states, districts, and schools react to this goal for more than a decade, and the vast majority of the responses has been positive. From kitchen tables to classrooms to principals’ offices, from district offices to statehouses, people have come together and worked hard to provide struggling students with support, encouragement, rigor, and accountability.

Those efforts have produced remarkable gains. Before national efforts brought attention to the dropout crisis, including the Silent Epidemic report in 2006 and the subsequent launch of the GradNation campaign, the high school graduation rate was 71 percent. As data from the National Center for Education Statistics show, it essentially hovered in there for about three decades, give or take a few percentage points.

Today, we have an all-time high graduation rate of 84.1 percent. That increase means that an additional 3 million young people have graduated with their classes over the past dozen years, and receiving with their diplomas a longer life expectancy, a lower risk of experiencing homelessness, increased odds of higher earnings, along with many other benefits.

High School Graduation Rates Graph

Furthermore, these increases have happened at a time when graduation requirements have generally become more demanding and courses have become more rigorous—not the other way around, as skeptics often argue.

Though we strongly believe in the progress that has been made, we’re not naïve. In our annual Building a Grad Nation report, we’ve pointed out concerns about those who game the system, and we’ve called out charter schools, credit recovery programs, and dropout factories for granting diplomas without actually preparing students. We’ve also encouraged action to look more carefully at dubious practices that affect the graduation rate. 

Cheating or fudging to meet numerical goals isn’t really hitting those goals—if you don’t run all 26.2 miles, you haven’t really run a marathon. If our real interest lies in keeping young people on the path to adult success, then giving diplomas that don’t reflect real readiness for college and career doesn’t meet the objective, and most of all, it does a disservice to the very young people we’re trying to support. 

The responses from Ballou graduates have been powerful and instructive. Like many young people across the country, Ballou seniors led complicated lives full of competing responsibilities and priorities. Many of them didn’t have the support they needed to do what was necessary to stay focused on school and complete their classes.

The current coverage reminds us what happens when a system sets ambitious goals and high expectations, but doesn’t create the support to help students and schools meet them. And let’s be honest, that support can often be challenging to provide—even under the best circumstances.

Yet we know it’s possible. While negative stories like the ones we’ve been seeing about Ballou will always get more media attention, it’s easy to overlook stories of real success and progress, like this high school in Indiana that raised graduation rates by 15 percentage points through data-driven interventions and support.

Overall, Indiana has the smallest graduation gap between low-income and non-low-income students in the country, even though more than one-third of the state’s students come from low-income families. Meanwhile, districts in Ohio and Oregon have found creative ways to work with communities to students to fight chronic absence, the issue at the heart of the Ballou story.

As the reports about Ballou and other schools continue to come in, America’s Promise and the GradNation campaign will continue to raise its own questions and concerns about dubious practices. 

But we will also continue to spotlight schools and communities that are doing genuine and impressive work to increase graduation rates and prepare young people for adult success—the real progress behind the rise of graduation rates in this country, the important story behind the data, and the one that rarely gets the attention it deserves.

What happened at Ballou is an important chapter that deserves our attention, but it is not the full story of high school graduation rates. The hard work of many students, parents, schools, communities, and organizations should not be eclipsed by the misdeeds of a few.

John Gomperts is the CEO and president of America’s Promise Alliance. For more information about the validity of high school graduation rates, check out Are High School Graduation Gains Real?