Have graduation rates slipped during COVID? 8 ways to reach new heights

Despite gaps, Black and Hispanic students were driving the gains in the national graduation rate prior to COVID
By: | October 6, 2021
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High school graduation rates set a record just before COVID, and a new report warns that only aggressive efforts will power that progress past the pandemic.

In the last school year unaffected by COVID, the nation’s high school graduation rate hit an all-time high of 85.8% but historically disadvantaged students were still lagging behind white, Asian, and non-low-income students, according to the 2021 “Building A Grad Nation” report. The good news is that low-income students reached an 80% graduation rate for the first time ever in 2019 but the report also found:

  • English learners graduated at a rate 17.9 percentage points below their non-English learner peers.
  • While students with disabilities made up 12.3% of the 2019 cohort they accounted for 27.6% of students who did not graduate on time.
  • Low-income students accounted for 49.1% of the 2019 graduating cohort but accounted for 69.2% of students who failed to graduate on time.
  • Underperforming high schools (those with a grad rate of 67% or less) accounted for 7% of overall enrollment, but 26% of non-graduates.

“The nation is currently off-pace to reach its 90 percent high school graduation rate goal by the class of 2020 and COVID-19 has caused disruptions to education that will be studied for years,” says the report, which was was produced by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Early evidence shows little impact on graduation rates for the class of 2020 but studies also show a decline in college enrollment. And prior to COVID, Black and Hispanic students were driving the gains in the national graduation rate though significant gaps persisted in comparison with white students.

In 2019, the gap between Black and white graduation rates was 9.8 percentage points and 7.7 percentage points between Hispanic and white students, the report says.

Also, students who are low-income, Native American, Hispanic and Black were all overrepresented at low-graduation-rate high schools in 2019, the report found.

But the deep and unequal effects of the pandemic s almost certainly widened gaps in graduation rates, says the report.

“Each state has different challenges remaining to meet the moment and finish the job of graduating all students from high school ready for college and career in the midst of a global pandemic,” the authors of the report say. “In some states, large numbers of students are falling off-track to graduate in alternative schools and in others, nearly all non-graduates are from traditional district neighborhood high schools.”

How to reach new, more equitable heights

To prevent the pandemic from having a  substantial and lasting and inequitable on graduation rates, the report recommends:

1. Continue to improve graduation rate data collection and reporting. While the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate remains the ‘gold standard’ of metrics in this area, stakeholders can also address variations across states and develop better data disaggregation. Also needed are state-level data on the percentage of high school graduates who immediately enroll in postsecondary education disaggregated by subgroups. Graduation rate data by gender should also be collected.

2. Promote policies that reduce damaging academic disparities. States should make greater investments in low-performing schools to ensure equitable access to college. This could include weighted funding, evidenced-based funding and federal monitoring of ESSA’s subgroup goals.

3. Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. K-12 education leaders can help students better identify their postsecondary options, including the application process and the course requirements for various career paths.  Employers can provide more internships and job shadowing programs. And policymakers can expand high school students’ opportunities to earn college credits.

4. Align state graduation requirements with college admission requirements. The report found a misalignment between high school graduation requirements and college admissions requirements in nearly all state university systems.

5. Further examine credit recovery programs. Credit recovery courses too often provide online learning without teacher-student interaction, which leads to doubts about rigor. Educators must therefore analyze course recovery programs to get a clear picture of student demographics, the average number of and most common courses taken, the percentage of credits earned and whether students who complete course recovery are prepared for college.

6. Continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 and address the education gaps it exposed. States that responded to the crisis by altering graduation requirements for
the class of 2020 have also risked making future data unreliable. Because the full ramifications of COVID are still impossible to fully comprehend, policymakers must closely monitor student achievement, college preparedness and level of trauma experienced by students.

7. Expand the use of early warning systems. Early warning systems can give educators real-time data to signal students who are falling behind but many high schools say they don’t have access to the necessary tools. Because these systems can also help educators craft interventions, the report recommends that early warning be implemented far more widely.

8. Establish a “student success corps.” Such a community organization would help educators by providing more support to students and their families as soon as it is needed. Ideally, a student success corps would receive federal, state and local funding.