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high school graduation rate
Deering High School graduation at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Credit: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

This story was originally published by the Education Writers Association and reprinted with permission.

As federal education officials tout a fourth consecutive year of improvement in the nation’s high school graduation rate, the reactions that follow are likely to fall into one of three categories: policymakers claiming credit for the gains; critics arguing that achievement gaps are still far too wide to merit celebrating; and policy wonks warning against misuses of the data.

Understandably at the front of the first group is U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., who used a press call with reporters to showcase some of the Obama administration’s flagship efforts, such as investing in high-quality early childhood programs, offering competitive grants for school improvement, and boosting classroom technology capabilities, particularly in high-need urban and rural communities.

According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education, released today, 83.2 percent of students in the class of 2015 graduated, compared with 82.3 percent in the prior academic year. That’s a gain of 4.2 percentage points since 2011. Improvements in graduation rates were seen for each of the reported student subgroups — broken down by ethnicity, socioeconomics, limited English proficiency, and special education status.

Related: The graduation rates from every school district* in one map

To be sure, there still are significant gaps to overcome. While the average graduation rate for black students rose to 74.6 percent from 67 percent in 2011, that’s still almost four full percentage points lower than where white students were four years ago. In other words, struggling students might be making gains, but they are not improving fast enough to catch up to their more affluent and white classmates.

Why does this gap matter? Regardless of where people side on the perennial “Is college worth the cost?” debate, it’s generally recognized that a high school diploma is the bare minimum required for marginal employment. For students who fail to graduate, the achievement gap quickly becomes an opportunity gap that they likely will struggle with for the rest of their adult lives.

How High Is the Bar?

Of course, “Have more students graduated?” is a very different question than “Are more young adults prepared for success after high school?” And the answers you get to the latter can depend heavily on whom you ask. Consider, for example, a recent report by The Education Trust, a research and advocacy group, which found:

Forty-seven percent, or almost half, of American high school graduates complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study — defined here as the standard 15-course sequence required for entry at many public colleges, along with three or more credits in a broad career field such as health science or business. It also shows that only 8 percent of high school graduates in 2013 completed a full college- and career-prep curriculum. Less than one-third of graduates completed only a college-ready course of study, and just 13 percent finished a career-ready course sequence only.

So what does this mean? Are graduation rates going up in part because high school expectations are actually going down? A project last year by NPR’s education team found examples at both ends of the spectrum: innovative programs that were legitimately helping students find hard-fought academic success, as well as examples of questionable policies and practices.

Washington Post reporter Emma Brown didn’t mince words during the press call Monday with Secretary King. “How do you know” that students are actually leaving high school better prepared, she asked. Brown pointed to U.S. students’ stagnating and even declining proficiency rates at some grade levels in reading and math on a national assessment. (Her story is here.)

Related: Putting students in charge to close the achievement gap

And, as Brown and others have noted, there are serious questions about the quality of some fast-track alternative methods of awarding diplomas, like online credit recovery programs, that have become particularly popular in large urban districts eager to boost graduation rates. (Two examples of the latter: WBEZ Chicago’s investigation into the city’s questionable methodology for tracking dropouts and in-depth reporting by the Los Angeles Times on that district’s credit recovery program.)

Standards and graduation rates are left up to the states, and “it’s fair to say there are variations” among them in what’s required, King said.

“Certainly we share the concern that we have more work to do to ensure that every student is ready for what’s next,” he said on the press call. But “overall, the evidence is clear that students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.”

Measuring gains

Alyson Klein of Education Week took another tack on the graduation data, asking if, given the notoriously long lead time for school improvement programs to show effects, some credit is actually due to the administration of former President George W. Bush. When she put this question to King during the press call, he said the real credit goes to teachers, students, and their families, before adding that every new administration certainly builds on what came before it.

But as Klein writes, it’s incredibly difficult to determine which initiatives and programs are actually responsible for academic gains. In her Education Week story, Klein quotes Laura Hamilton, the associate director of RAND Education, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif.:

If she had to guess, she thinks the higher rates seen in previous years could be a by-product of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was replaced late last year with the federal Every Students Succeeds Act:

“I suspect some of the gain in grad rates is a result of state accountability policies adopted under NCLB that emphasized the need to improve grad rates, and it’s possible the original subgroup requirements helped by incentivizing schools to devote more resources to groups that had been traditionally underserved,” Hamilton said.

But she cautioned that, “this is speculation; it’s hard to know exactly what factors contributed to the change.”

Related: What can be done about failing U.S. high schools? A look back and ahead

Even with those caveats in mind, there’s at least strong circumstantial evidence of gains at the district and state level. Among them: The District of Columbia, which was singled out for praise in the press call, along with North Carolina. (Officials from the White House and North Carolina also participated alongside Secretary King in the conference call.)

Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, pointed to the District of Columbia Public Schools as one of the most consistent improvers by multiple measures — including graduation rates — since receiving a substantial influx of federal dollars in 2011 as part of the federal Race To The Top school-improvement grant program. That $75 million went to adopt college- and career-ready standards, overhaul the district’s teacher evaluation system, and boost preschool opportunities. Currently, nearly 90 percent of eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled in the district’s preschool programs, as are about 70 percent of eligible 3-year-olds, Munoz told reporters during the media call.

D.C. has also been ranked as the fastest-improving school district in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (For more on the debate on whether D.C.’s changing demographics and gentrification might be influencing some aspects of its student achievement, read this take by Education Next.)

June Atkinson, North Carolina’s superintendent of public education, told reporters during the press call that the increased graduation rate in her state is just one indicator of improvement; more students also are enrolling in community colleges and four-year universities. And at public institutions, the percentage of college freshmen who require remedial classes has been significantly reduced, Atkinson said. Those are indicators “that the diploma does mean something,” she said.

In the waning days of his presidency, Obama’s education priorities span the grade spectrum, from urging Congress and states to invest in high-quality preschool and early childhood programs, to launching a new grant program aimed at “reinventing” high school, to pushing to make college more affordable for a larger pool of students. How many of these programs and mandates will carry over into the next administration remains to be seen. It’s also worth asking whether a few years from now, another president will claim credit for improvements in the nation’s public education portfolio — gains that might be the result of Obama’s policies beginning to bear fruit.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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