US High School Graduation Rates Vs Student Performance

Last year (2016), the high school graduation rate reached a record high of 83.2%  [1].  Obama implied that this was a result of the efforts of his administration during his presidency [2]; this may indeed be correct.  In fact, the high school graduation rate has risen ever year during his presidency [3,4].  Whenever, though, we represent something as complicated as the performance of high schoolers across our nation by a single real number, there is some significant amount of information lost. Let us take a moment to investigate some of these hidden realities.

In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that only 37 percent of high school seniors were prepared for college level work in math [5]; this was a drop of 2 percent since 2013 (the last time the test was given).  And only 38 percent of students are prepared for college level work in reading [5] (an increase of one percentage point in one year).  Since 1992, when the graduation rate was approximately 74 percent [4], the average reading score of high school seniors has steadily dropped [6].  This shows that the increase in graduation rate is not a result of improved ability; instead, it’s the result of reduced standards.

Additionally, the number of seniors scoring below “basic” in reading has risen from 20 percent to 28 percent from 1992 to 2016 [6]; the number of students considered proficient has also dropped during that time.  Testing by the NAEP in math began in 2005, and scores have remained steady during that time at approximately 50 percent [7].  So the trends in ability are counter to those in graduation.

With these performance scores, I question why we are graduating so many students.  With approximately 40 percent of seniors prepared in reading and math, does that not mean that only about 40 percent of students should graduate?

In 2002, George W. Bush passed the “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB), which would punish (through reduced funding and increased controls) any school that didn’t meet its performance requirements [8].  Not a single school succeeded in meeting the demands of NCLB.  During his presidency, Obama passed the “Every Student Succeeds Act”(ESSA) to replace NCLB.  With ESSA, High schools are evaluated (in part) by their graduation rates [9].  In particular, states are required to intervene in low performing schools or in any high school with a graduation rate less than 67 percent.  This may explain much of the observed increase.













2 thoughts on “US High School Graduation Rates Vs Student Performance

  1. This is very interesting and it’s astonishing to learn the percentage of high school students that are actually prepared for college level reading/math. As always, I appreciate the citations/references! Great article and well written.


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