Can the U.S. reach 90 percent high school graduation by 2020?

by Erin Murphy

High school graduation rates have continued to grow over the last decade, reaching a record high of 82.3 percent. This graduation rate is 10 percent higher than at the turn of the century; however, over the last year the rate of increase has begun to slow. If the graduation rate continues to slow, we will not be on track to reach the goal of 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

Earlier this week, America’s Promise Alliance, with support from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, released the 2016 Building a Grad Nation Report, which explores strategies to reach this major graduation goal as part of the GradNation Campaign.

To introduce the findings from this report, America’s Promise Alliance hosted a webinar where expert speakers and co-authors discussed the progress and challenges in ending the high school dropout epidemic and achieving a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. Speakers included:

  • John Bridgeland, CEO and president, Civic Enterprises
  • Jennifer DePaoli, Senior Education Advisor, Civic Enterprises
  • Robert Balfanz, Director of the Everyone Graduates Center, School of Education at John Hopkins University
  • Tanya Tucker, Vice president of Alliance Engagement, America’s Promise Alliance

To get back on track toward 90 percent graduation by 2020, targeted efforts are necessary. In the webinar, the speakers highlighted four key areas influencing national graduation rates.

Key student groups: Graduation rates for Latino and African-American students have shown the greatest growth in the last year, 5 percent, however these groups still trail behind the national average significantly. Additionally, graduation rates for low-income and English language learner students and students with disabilities are significantly lower than the national average.

Low-graduation-rate schools: Low-graduation-rate schools are defined as schools with graduation rates under 67 percent. In 2014, 7 percent of regular district high schools qualified as low-grad-rate schools. Additionally, states with the lowest graduation rates and had the highest proportion of low-grad-rate schools indicating these are correlated.

Key states: The majority of states are on track to achieve the 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, with Iowa already reaching this goal, and five more states within two percentage points. However, 21 states are currently off track to reach this goal, with a quarter of them remaining stagnant or even backsliding since 2011.

Non-traditional high schools: Non-traditional high schools, such as alternative, charter and virtual schools account for a small proportion of total high schools in the U.S. However, these schools are disproportionally represented among low-graduation-rate high schools, with 57 percent of alternative schools and 87 percent of virtual schools nationwide being low-graduation-rate schools.

By targeting efforts toward these key areas, the U.S. can get back on track to achieve 90 percent graduation by 2020, and honor a commitment to equality of opportunity. Based on the finding of this report, the authors made four main policy recommendations.

  • Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools.
  • Require the reporting of extended-year graduation rates.
  • Provide real pathways to engage students who have fallen off track.
  • Ensure alternative, charter and virtual schools are included in state accountability and improvement systems.

Afterschool programs can play an important role in improving graduation rates and encouraging opportunity for all students. Many afterschool programs are already serving key student groups, low-graduation-rate schools, struggling states and students attending non-traditional high schools. Additionally, out-of-school time programs are working to reduce the achievement gap and support students who have fallen off track.

To learn more about the progress and challenges in ending the high school dropout epidemic check out the executive summary and full report.

© 2013 Afterschool Alliance