From ‘Dropout Crisis’ To Record High, Dissecting The Graduation Rate

Jun 13, 2015

by Anya Kamenetz

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama had some sure-fire applause lines: “More of our kids are graduating than ever before” and “Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high.”

Which raised some interesting questions: “Is that really true?” and “Why?” and “How do we know?” and “So what?”

A seed was planted that grew into our project this week examining that number. Our reporting shows many of the individual stories behind a single statistic: 81 percent, the current U.S. graduation rate.

But in the course of pulling this project together, our team fell into a rabbit hole over something that doesn’t often get attention: the origin of the statistic itself. It turns out to be a fascinating story, and not just for data wonks. It’s a story of collaboration across the political aisle, heroic efforts and millions of dollars spent by state governments, and dogged researchers uncovering new insights that arguably changed the lives of tens of thousands of young people.

Many individuals worked hard, and worked together, to make the nation do a better job counting high school graduates. The effort had complex — sometimes contradictory — results.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

5 comments on “From ‘Dropout Crisis’ To Record High, Dissecting The Graduation Rate

  • My first thought on reading this article was that the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) appears to be a bit flakey – it has no national academic standard attached?

    My second thought was: That creates a big political incentive for cheating. Being a charitable sort, I also remembered an old quote: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy, is the is the inefficiency of the bureaucracy.” and thought, yes the bureaucracy is at fault not the politicians …

    I just couldn’t believe that a bipartisan bill like No Child Left Behind could make matters worse, because that never happens … right?

    Still, I couldn’t let it rest: Just how good is this Graduation Rate number?

    It took very little digging to find this report on the (ahem) questionable statistic.

    Then I realised that NPR:Ed has an entire series of reports related to the poor quality of education statistics and the highly questionable record of States delivery of education. Seriously, go there, it’s a gold mine of information on what’s happening in U.S. education right now.

    After reading NPR:Ed for a while I got to thinking about the obvious necessity for employers to test anyone who came to me with a High School Diploma, perhaps using something like the General Educational Development test (GED). The GED is an independent third party standard, so ideal for weeding out applicants who’s diploma is not worth the Walmart wallpaper it seems they’re often photocopied onto (/joke).

    To be fair, many high schools are reported to include GED in their High School Diplomas. It seems to me these are probably the best schools. Nothing says quality better than third party accreditation by a respected body and GED is accredited by the American Council on Education (ACE).

    As GED pass rates have recently dropped by 85%, that would appear to give the lie to the idea that No Child Left Behind has raised standards. Of course this is not connected with some states working on an alternative to GED, and the GED pass rate is no indication of the effectiveness of states’ education policies and initiatives. Or am I being too quick there …

    Thinking I had run out of revelations I side-tracked into looking into the 1,770,000 students who are homeschooled in the U.S. every year [~3.4% of the total] and I found that they fall into two groups: Those who’s parents are academic and fear that a public school will not serve their children well, and reactionary, bigoted ideologists.

    Interestingly these two groups are easily identified by their attitude towards GED. The academic group embrace it for what it is (a highly-respected third-party standard for qualifying the educational achievement of test subjects). The other group slander it as a label for high school dropouts – and they offer only opinion and personal anecdotes to support this excruciating error of judgement.

    To be fair GED does, also, offer a way back into academia, and the employment pool, for dropouts – but only a cursory study shows that this is not its main aim which is to bring the Common Core Standards to high schools. Ooh, what’s that?

    The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an education outcomes standard sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) for high school students.

    Why, then, are all high school students not being tested to GED standard? Why is the High School Graduation (ACGR) statistic not based on the GED? Why are the homeschooled not also being tested to GED – and why are all students not tested on milestone achievements to diploma-level GED per year? How is it that the link between Common Core, supported by State’s Governors, and the Federal initiative to support State’s measurement of their success does not exist?

    You don’t have to be Political Witch Doctor, Policy Wonk, or Journalist to work this out. The key fact is that some States are being two-faced. On the one hand they’re supporting an initiative to qualify the minimum required standard (Common Core) while on the other hand they’re fiddling their figures to fool parents, and the Federal Government, into thinking that they’re raising graduation rates. President Obama’s January address on the issue (as above) suggests it’s working too.

    As a former Project Manager I know that it’s possible, but exceedingly rare, to be able to raise both standards and output, from any process, within the same resource limits. The only times I have seen this done is through personnel motivation – getting the people behind the project fired up can make a very big difference to both effectiveness and efficiency.

    States are seeking alternatives to GED saying that the cost of GED is too high.

    Summary: Many State Governments are failing their citizens. They know that Common Core should be the minimum standard. They know that GED is based on Common Core. They know that if they based all their graduation rates on GED testing those rates would fall because, if that were not true, they would just be doing it rather than what they are doing, which is reinventing the wheel, by backing away from GED.

    Some States are backing away from GED. They’re also pushing back against Common Core.

    If State politicians are not being motivated by the Federal initiative to monitor graduation rates, what are their motivations? Don’t they care about the next generation?

    Why the States are doing this is beyond the scope of a simple online post. Ideology, lack of resources, potential for major loss of political face (some, but not all, of my money definitely on this one), etc. etc. … but that’s not important at this point.

    At this point it’s just important to remember that a good education is essential for personal well being, for tackling ignorance, for economic growth and – most important of all – because it is a foundation stone of democracy itself.

    If there was any real justice in U.S. politics – if US politics was about tackling real challenges in real life, and not about newstainment – this is what would be on the political and media agenda not the Duggar circus clowns.

    If I were a U.S. parent with school-aged children I’d be checking my State’s stance on Common Core and there are some places where I would be spitting blood and writing letters … lots of letters.

    Peace.



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  • ” After reading NPR:Ed for a while I got to thinking about the obvious necessity for employers to test anyone who came to me with a High School Diploma, perhaps using something like the General Educational Development test (GED). The GED is an independent third party standard, so ideal for weeding out applicants who’s diploma is not worth the Walmart wallpaper it seems they’re often photocopied onto (/joke). ”

    I don’t think that is a legal thing employers may do now days.

    Other than that I agree with you. Debase the coin of education to raise the numbers ” educated. ” An old and often played trick.



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  • Hi Neodarwinian,

    If you mean it isn’t a legal requirement, you’re right.

    On the other hand; are US Employers not entitled to choose employees on the basis of education (i.e. knowledge, skills and understanding)?

    The reason that I looked into this point, and that it appeared in my post, was that I discovered the US Army accepts GED or HSD, but then tests recruits anyway and there is an annual limit on the number of recruits they accept with a maximum GED/HSD educational attainment (they prefer 15 College Credits, if I remember correctly – which I may not).

    US Army recruitment is fascinating for all sorts of reasons to do with what it says about the average, non-college, 17-20 year-old citizen and their education in general.

    I’m very familiar with the kinds of people that the armed forces recruit having met some during my own service – and the education bar is not set high.

    Sadly I only have time to consider this one point: The US Army, the US ARMY!, cannot rely on a diploma to tell them enough about a person’s high school education. I didn’t have a lot of time to study the details this morning (and my apologies to anyone who knows more about this subject as it is quite nuanced), but it was clear that the Army recruitment people closely monitor, State-by-State, year-by-year, the quality of HSDs. and they have to put in place a non-discriminatory way of ensuring that they even-up the playing field as the range is large and diverse. Thus: They test all recruits using their own testing regime.

    Allow me to illustrate that another way: If I got 20 job applications from people who all present me with a HSD my first question (after what I learned earlier today) would be to check that those diplomas were actually issued by accredited organizations.

    I might also be interested in subscribing to a resource that applies some kind of quality criteria to each State’s HSD but, as far as I know, no-one is doing this … yet.

    Say I still have 15. That’s still too many to interview, what can I do to whittle this number down? I could do what the US Army does, I could ask all those not already GED certified to go to a GED Center and, at my expense, complete a standard test.

    There is nothing illegal, or new, in any of this. Indeed, when I worked for Motorola (many moons ago) standardized testing of employees was the norm – even during employment.

    Not only is it not illegal it seems to me that, legally, some companies will need to apply such testing or run the risk of being sued for employing people who, HSD or not, are simply not up to the job.

    An old and often played trick.

    If you don’t like the World, change it.

    If it’s an old trick, then it’s time it was changed.

    If the trick is played often, well: Fool me once, then shame on you – fool me twice, then shame on me.

    Peace.



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  • ” On the other hand; are US Employers not entitled to choose employees on the basis of education (i.e. knowledge, skills and understanding)? ”

    They are legally constrained here. That is why credentialism can be such a problem. Testing is out and the credential is in. ( excepting such employment where a test must be administered ) The expectation is that someone completing a four year degree will have a skill set that make the person trainable in the general workplace. Still, employers are complaining that many college graduates ( all HS grads aside ) are not showing up to work with minimal skills; composition, mathematical and good problem solving skills.

    What troubles me here is grade inflation of the kind that allows people who are not competent to graduate HS to go on to college where they take some mickey mouse degree program. A program devoid of a real content. Softmath, stripped down science courses and their majors being underwater basket weaving courses.
    The only beneficiaries here are colleges that exist on loan money, loan money many of these graduates will have trouble paying back .

    The world is changing, but in the US that change may not be for the better. Inflated number games will not prepare us for the future where problem solving skills will be needed.



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  • Hi Neodarwinian,

    First of all, sorry to be a dog with a bone about this.

    It’s just that – for me – this particular story goes to the heart of what the RDFRS is all about.

    Richard Dawkins is famous because he stood up for some points of view that, until then, got little air time. But this has tended to obscure his real message which I hope he will agree, is: Truth matters.

    What we believe to be true as individuals matters because it has real, immediate and widespread consequences for us all. Within that message is an important and unpalatable (to many) truth: Academic ability needs to be recognised and developed – and it is not universal.

    They are legally constrained here.

    This looks like your alluding to some specific law? I can’t find it. I make no claim to expertise in this area, and I freely admit that I’ve merely presented personal anecdote up to now.

    Time for us both to get specific.

    What constraint are you talking about exactly?

    That is why credentialism can be such a problem.

    I don’t recognise the term ‘credentialism’. This is a made-up word that politicians use to assist them in exactly the shenanigans were discussing.

    Politicians, bless their little hearts, want us all to feel good (except, obviously, when they want us to be terrified out of our wits by terrorism – just don’t examine the word terrorism too closely … ).

    Politicians, playing to our desire for the feel-good factor, recognise that helping our kiddies succeed better in life is generally considered an all-round good thing.

    So, lowering pass rates for exams and coursework is a ‘good’ idea. Plus, if anyone notices, you just bad-mouth them back with: Well look at Mr./Mdm. Negative telling your little loves that their success isn’t what it seems after all their hard work!

    Professionals, particularly professional academics, notice a fall in the quality – plus a confusing and coincidental rise in the number – of course applicants.

    Professionals, real ones who worry about the general public and the ethics of their profession, see a potential decline in the quality of the service their profession might deliver to the general public in the future.

    What to do?

    Raise the bar for application. It is the obvious solution. It’s also easy to implement.

    The politicians are outraged (I’m sorry I don’t have time to detail this but socialist, democrat, liberal, libertarian, republican and fascist politicians potentially agree – for entirely different reasons – that professions which defend their honor and integrity are very naughty) because all the politicians’ ‘hard work’ has been undone.

    So … the politicians invent credentialism as a political/media term to counter grade inflation.

    Hoorah [waves very small flag in token ironic gesture].

    Testing is out and the credential is in. (excepting such employment where a test must be administered ).

    I don’t get it. Please enlighten me.

    The expectation is that someone completing a four year degree will have a skill set that make the person trainable in the general workplace. Still, employers are complaining that many college graduates ( all HS grads aside ) are not showing up to work with minimal skills; composition, mathematical and good problem solving skills.

    I cannot argue. I’m currently serving (makes it sound like a prison sentence … which is not far off) a contract alongside a so-called Mechanical Engineering graduate. I know next to nothing about mechanical engineering, but this ‘graduate’ has brought to me the most ridiculous questions on exactly that subject which he supposedly spent four years studying, every day, for the last six months.

    What troubles me here is grade inflation of the kind that allows people who are not competent to graduate HS to go on to college where they take some mickey mouse degree program. [etc] …

    Yes yes yes, you’re preaching to the choir! But this is not a problem of your making or mine – it comes from the politicians (as above).

    But my point remains unanswered: Politicians take their lead from us. Tell them your concerns. If enough of us do it, we can be the people who made a difference.

    The only beneficiaries here are colleges that exist on loan money, loan money many of these graduates will have trouble paying back.

    As the Father of a Daughter who is currently running up a very large debt at the University of Kent, I disagree with that analysis. True; the University has three groups pushing for grade inflation : Politicians, Parents & Students (though not this parent, who just keeps his fingers crossed).

    However, the University also has significant pressure from those who want the University to sustain and improve standards: Businesses and others who need high quality graduates, Future Students (and their parents) shopping for future places, academics, including masters and doctoral students, who would prefer to be identified with a higher level of learning and achievement, local community pride, and alumni who would (one assumes) rather defend the good name of their institution rather more than they would like to see it degraded.

    The world is changing, but in the US that change may not be for the better.

    Oh please, Neodarwinian, not you too?! Enough with the counsel of despair!

    I can guarantee you this: The World will change. If you do nothing, you won’t like the change. If you do something, you will, at the very least, learn from your mistakes.

    Learn from Robert the Bruce and the Spider. Tenacity and perseverance bring results.

    Peace.



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