Caps and Trees



2020 Building A Grad Nation Report

Release date:

October 01, 2020

Authored by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, 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 commitment since 2008 to graduate more students from high school ready for college and career. Pure Edge Inc., dedicated to bringing learners and educations success through focus, and Target, are supporting sponsors.


The nation has been committed to reaching a 90 percent graduation rate equitably for nearly 20 years. In 2010, the GradNation campaign launched a focused effort to reach that goal by the Class of 2020.

Steady progress has been made toward this goal. After 30 years of stagnating graduation rates, the country has seen 14 consecutive years of increasing graduation rates since 2004. In 2018, the nation once again reached an all-time high national graduation rate of 85.3 percent and 3.8 million more students have graduated rather than dropping out since the turn of the century. These additional graduates produce benefits to the nation’s economy, health, and civic society and position themselves to pursue the American dream.

Notably, gains have been driven by improvements among underserved students, with Black, Hispanic, low-income, and students with disabilities all out-pacing the national rate of increase. These improvements have persisted into postsecondary education, with Hispanic and Black students more than doubling their enrollment rates, and low-income students enrolling at rates that match their middle-income peers.

Still, there is crucial work to be done.

Across the nation, most students attend high schools with a graduation rate already at 90 percent or higher, but a disproportionate number of four-year non-graduates remain trapped in a subset of schools where the graduation rate is only 41.8 percent. Low- income, Black, Hispanic, English Learners, American Indian, and students experiencing homelessness and students with disabilities are all overrepresented in these schools, calling into question equal opportunity for students, regardless of race, socio-economic background, or any other challenge they may face.

Now, more than ever is the time to commit to meeting the moment on high school graduation and redoubling our efforts to prepare students for the rigors of postsecondary education, training, and work.

There is great uncertainty rippling through the world. As local and state economies are severely affected by the global pandemic, and predictions for a return to normalcy vary, much is unknown about what the future holds. What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped education in this country for the Class of 2020 and beyond.

We must continue to analyze all available data to understand COVID-19’s full impact. As the nation reviews the response of the health system and identifies ways for the economy to recover, it must also conduct a national review of our education system in times of crisis. In this moment, we must also do everything possible to provide students across America with a quality education and the supports they need, educationally, mentally, and physically to be able to come out of this crisis prepared for future success.

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Part 1: High School Graduation Trends Across the Nation

In 2018, the national graduation rate once again reached an all-time high of 85.3 percent, up from 79 percent in 2011, when the Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) was first reported nationally and up from 71 percent in 2001 when the Averaged Freshmen Graduation Rate (AFGR) was used. This marks a small increase from the 84.6 percent rate in 2017, with the nation remaining off track to reach the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by the Class of 2020. Reaching the goal would have required graduating an additional 174,152 students across the nation on time.

In order to ensure the path to a 90 percent graduation rate is one of equity, it would also require the majority of the additional graduates to come from traditional underserved student subgroups, including Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness.

Encouragingly, Black, Hispanic, and low-income students have driven gains in graduation rates since 2011, with such rates rising from 67 percent to 79 percent for Black students, 71 percent to 81 percent for Hispanic students, and 70 percent to 79.5 percent for low-income students.

Figure 2

Reviewing state-level data shows disparate outcomes across the nation. While some states have made tremendous progress toward the 90 percent goal, others have stagnated in recent years, or even experienced backsliding. Yet, the success of high-poverty states, including West Virginia, which crossed the 90 percent graduation rate threshold for the first time in 2018, serves as a challenge to other states to reach the 90 percent goal. As of 2018, seven states—Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia—reached a 90 percent graduation rate, up from only two states in 2017. An additional 8 states remained within 2 percentage points, while 29 states in all had surpassed 85 percent. New Mexico remained the only state with a graduation rate below 75 percent.

Part II: Reaching a 90 Percent Graduation Rate for All Students

Where We Stand…

Low-Income Students: Encouragingly, low-income students’ on- time graduation rate has increased nearly 10 percentage points over the past 8 years, rising to an all-time high of 79.5 percent in 2018. This includes a 1.2 percentage point gain from 2017. Looking across states offers an even more hopeful glimpse, as in 2011, just 2 states graduated more than 80 percent of their low-income students. By 2018, that number had increased to 17 states, while 4 states (Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia) had climbed above an 85 percent graduation rate for low-income students. Meanwhile, just one state—New Mexico—continues to lag below a 70 percent graduation rate for low- income students.

Black and Hispanic Students: Progress in the national graduation rate continues to be driven mostly by increases for Black and Hispanic students across the country. From 2011 to 2018, Black and Hispanic students experienced graduation rate gains of 12 and 10 percentage points, respectively, which nearly doubles the rate of growth of white students and outpaces the national increase of 6.3 percentage points. Despite this progress, significant graduation rate gaps remain for both populations and they continue to comprise a disproportionate percentage of the nation’s non-graduates.

Figure 3

One year after reaching an 80 percent graduation rate, Hispanic students again achieved an all-time high of 81 percent. Five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Texas, and West Virginia) led the group with Hispanic graduation rates above 85 percent.

Graduation rates for Black students continue to fall below the national average with a rate of 79 percent—though this does mark an annual increase of 1.2 percentage points, the second largest yearly gain of any subgroup. In 4 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and West Virginia), Black students outpace the national average with graduation rates ranging from 85.6 percent in Arkansas to 87.7 percent in Alabama. Yet, 5 states— Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin—continue to lag below a 70 percent graduation rate

Homeless Students: Data from the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) show that over 1.5 million K–12 students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2017–18 school year. Data from 49 states showed the graduation rates of students experiencing homelessness ranged from a low of 47 percent in Minnesota to a high of 87 percent in West Virginia. While NCHE did not provide a national average graduation rate, author calculations using cohort counts from 49 states plus the District of Columbia produce an estimated national graduation rate of 67.5 percent for students experiencing homelessness.

Students with Disabilities: Despite challenges with state-to-state comparisons, it is undeniable that students with disabilities continue to graduate at rates well below their peers. For the first time in 6 years, the graduation rate for students with disabilities did not increase from 2017 to 2018, remaining at 67.1 percent nationally. Like previous years, the majority of states increased their on-time graduation rate for students with disabilities, as 30 states saw a rate increase. Sixteen states’ graduation rates for students with disabilities, however, decreased, including 14 states whose decrease was at least 1 percentage point or more.

English Learners: Encouragingly, after a slight decrease in 2016–17, English Learners’ graduation rate increased 1.9 percentage points to 68.3 percent in 2017–18. Nearly half (24) of states had graduation rate increases of at least 1 percentage point for EL students, but there is still much progress that needs to be made: In 38 states, on-time graduation rates for EL students were at or below 75 percent. Even with an increased graduation rate of 68.3 percent, English Learners graduate at a rate 18.3 percentage points below their non- English Learner peers.

Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools: By 2018, there were 2,062 low-graduation-rate high schools, down from 2,357 in 2017 and 2,425 in 2016. These schools accounted for 11 percent of all high schools and enrolled only 7 percent of the 2018 cohort, but educated approximately 28 percent of all four-year non-graduates.

Figure 15

During the 2017–18 school year, charter schools constituted 11 percent of all schools but 28 percent of low-graduation- rate high schools nationwide, while virtual schools covered 2 percent and 9 percent of all high schools and low-graduation-rate high schools, respectively.

Part III: Meeting the Moment Plan

Serious challenges in boosting high school graduation rates and improving college and career readiness still remain. In all, 544,688 students across the nation failed to graduate on-time in 2018 out of a total cohort of 3.6 million students. Analysis shows that 174,152 of these non-graduates needed to graduate on-time in 2018 to reach the 90 percent goal. High school graduation gaps by race, ethnicity, income, disability, language, and housing status are still significant, posing serious questions about the country’s commitment to equal access to a quality education, as required by every State Constitution.

Most of the remaining non-graduates are highly concentrated: the top 5 states with the highest number of non-graduates have 37 percent of the nation’s non-graduates, the top 10 states have 56 percent, and the top 20 have 77 percent. At the district level, half of all on-time non-graduates are found in just 4 percent of school districts, while at the school level, 28 percent of all non-graduates are found in low-graduation-rate high schools with 100 or more students. These schools have a graduation rate of only 41.8 percent. The remaining non-graduates needed to reach a 90 percent graduation rate are spread widely across the country, with one-third of them distributed across 35 states and 12,000 school districts containing non-graduates.

For this reason, the Meeting the Moment plan focuses on 19 states with some of the highest numbers of non-graduates, plus an additional 3 states with graduation rates below the national average. Distilling the data further, half of the non-graduates in these 22 states are found in just 452 school districts and 887 low-graduation-rate high schools. Zeroing in on the most concentrated areas in this way allows effective, evidence-based actions to have the greatest leverage and impact the most students.

To ensure quality, the Meeting the Moment plan examines key indicators and outcomes across the targeted states to understand the extent of current successes, identify challenges, and specify where more work and focus are needed to ensure that increasing high school graduation rates translate to college and career readiness. The metrics examined included:

  • The Secondary School Improvement (SSI) Index: 14 of the 22 targeted states made improvements of at least one percentage point across at least three of the four indicators, with six states improving on all four indicators;
  • Reviewing state ESSA plans: Most, but not all, of the 22 states targeted in the Meeting the Moment plan measure chronic absenteeism, advanced coursework, and career and technical education;
  • High school graduation rate goals: Seventeen of the targeted 22 states have established a goal of 90 percent or higher, but most of their timeframes extend beyond 2020, with some even pushing past 2030;
  • Early Warning Indicators: While some evidence of the existence of early warning indicator data can be found in nearly all of the targeted states, often times there is a gap between state systems’ potential data use and schools effectively employing Early Warning Systems on the ground;
  • ACEs: In 16 of the 22 targeted states, 20 percent of students under age 17 encounter 2 or more ACEs and 13 out of the 22 have 20 percent or more of their students aged 5–17 living in poverty;
  • Youth disconnection: In 2018, the most recent year available, 11.2 percent of all 16 to 24-year-olds in the United States were disconnected from both school and work; and
  • Requirement alignment: Remarkably, most of the targeted states, and most of all states, do not have alignment between what is required for high school graduation and admission to the state’s flagship university systems.
Policy Recommendations

Continue to improve graduation rate data collection and reporting. In its eighth year, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate remains the ‘gold standard’ of graduation rate metrics. There still, however, are many ways to improve data quality and ensure the best possible data is being reported.

Promote policies that reduce damaging academic disparities. Subgroups such as Black, Hispanic, low- income, and Native American students are less likely to graduate high school on time and college- and career-ready.

Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. The transition from high school into postsecondary education and careers is challenging for students. K–12 education leaders can ease this transition by providing students with the resources to understand their postsecondary options, the application process, and the course requirements for their chosen pathways.

Align diploma requirements with college- and career-ready standards. Our analysis shows that students who graduate high school after completing the required courses for admission into a state’s university system is a strong predictor of postsecondary success. It is alarming, however, that we found misalignment between high school graduation requirements and college admissions requirements of state university systems in nearly all states.

Create state-specific high school graduation plans. States should develop “Meeting the Moment” State Action Plans that analyze which districts, schools, and student subgroups within the state need additional support to ensure students graduate on-time and college- and career-ready equitably.

Further examine credit recovery programs. Although high-quality models exist to get students back on track, the growth of credit recovery courses has also led to online learning without teacher or student interaction. This style of virtual learning has raised questions about the rigor of credit recovery programs.

Continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 and address education gaps exposed by the pandemic. The full impact of the COVID-19 crises is still impossible to understand. As such, policymakers must continue to closely monitor its impact on student learning, including postsecondary preparedness and added trauma for youth in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Expand the Use of Early Warning Systems. Early Warning Systems are one of the most effective means districts can use to increase their graduation rates in all their high schools. Research has identified attendance, behavior, and course performance—the “ABCs”—as powerful predictors of high school completion (Bruce et al., 2011).

Expand Capacity of Evidence-Based Nonprofits. Public and private funding should flow to nonprofits that have the most capacity to meet the needs of schools and districts and that have the strongest evidence of success increasing high school graduation rates and student achievement.

Press Release & Media

Click here to access the press release.

Media Contacts

America’s Promise Alliance:
Melissa Mellor
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Ellie Manspile
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Graduating from high school still must mean being ready and well for the world after graduation. That’s why we’re learning more about equity gaps and what we’ll need to Meet this Moment in the 2020 Building a #GradNation report:

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Authors and Sponsors

The 2020 Building A Grad Nation report is authored by Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Eleanor Manspile of Civic and Robert Balfanz at the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. Data analysis was conducted by Vaughan Byrnes at the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. It was released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Together, the four organizations lead the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce.

This year’s report, presented by lead sponsor AT&T and supporting sponsors Pure Edge and Target, is the eleventh annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates. AT&T’s support of Building a Grad Nation is part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature philanthropic initiative focused on investing in education and job training to create a skilled and diverse workforce.

The 5 Promises

The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:

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