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High School Graduation Rate at All-Time High but COVID-19 Could Jeopardize Gains, Grad Nation Report Says

Building A Grad Nation Report Cover and Sponsor Logos

Latest report provides pre-pandemic baseline, includes 50-state analysis outlining progress and challenges facing key student groups

While each state faces its own set of graduation challenges, the 50 state profiles surfaced some similar patterns across a sub-set of states.”
— Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center
WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES, October 6, 2021 / -- The nation’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 85.8% in 2018-19, the final school year unaffected by the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this progress could represent a high-water mark unless states make concerted, data-driven efforts to sustain improvements among key student groups, particularly English Learners and students with disabilities, according to the latest Building A Grad Nation report released today.

Substantial gains over the past decade among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities, have driven the overall increase in the national graduation rate. Notably, low-income students reached an 80% graduation rate for the first time in 2019. However, historically disadvantaged students still lag white, Asian, and non-low-income students—differences that are likely to be exacerbated by the deep and unequal effects of the pandemic.

Building A Grad Nation 2021: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates is an annual update 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 and sponsored by AT&T. The report reviews high school graduation rates and incorporates insights into how well graduates are prepared for life after high school through the Secondary School Improvement Index.

In addition to the traditional analysis of high school graduation trends, this report includes a State Data Profile for each of the 50 states. These data profiles define the graduation rate challenges in each state and are intended to help states identify the action steps needed to build pathways to adult success for all high school students. This year’s state profiles include graduation rate data by student subgroups as well as state-specific data on chronic absenteeism, child poverty, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and postsecondary attainment.

“While each state faces its own set of graduation challenges, the 50 state profiles surfaced some similar patterns across a sub-set of states,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “This creates opportunities for those states to collaborate on solutions and learn from each other’s efforts.”

In many states, for example, most non-graduates are concentrated in a small subset of districts. Nationally, half of students not graduating on time are in just 4% of all school districts. And across nearly all states, too many high school students do not attend school on a regular basis.

“When students feel connected to school, they do better and are more likely to graduate,” said Mike O’Brien, CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “Strategies to improve graduation rates and postsecondary success must address the significant toll the pandemic has had on students’ sense of connection with teachers and classmates.”

The report shows promising improvements in graduation rates for historically disadvantaged subgroups, matching or outpacing the national increase of 0.5 percentage points in 2019. The graduation rate increased to:

- 80.0% for low-income students (a 0.5 percentage point increase);
- 79.6% for Black students (a 0.6 percentage point increase); 
- 81.7% for Hispanic students (a 0.7 percentage point increase); 
- 74.3% for American Indian and Alaska Native students (a 0.8 percentage point increase); 
- 69.2% for students with limited English proficiency (a 0.9 percentage point increase); and
- 68.2% for students with disabilities (a 1.1 percentage point increase).

“Thanks to the tireless efforts of educators, policymakers, and researchers across the nation, more than 4.5 million students have graduated on-time instead of dropping out since 2000,” said  John Bridgeland, founder and CEO of Civic. “We must redouble our efforts to ensure the most vulnerable students have equal access to a quality education and the supports needed to succeed in high school and beyond.”

However, English Learners and students with disabilities continue to have national graduation rates well below their peers, with disparate outcomes across states. Students experiencing homelessness also face low graduation rates beyond conventional poverty—data from 49 states and the District of Columbia show a national graduation rate of 67.7% for these students. Research shows that these student populations have been disproportionately impacted by remote learning during the pandemic.

“We know we have much more work to do to ensure every student has the chance to succeed after high school,” said Deborah Delisle, President and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “With college enrollment down because of the pandemic, particularly among students of color and low-income students, it’s more critical than ever that we invest in proven programs leading to students securing degrees that prepare them for success, such as dual enrollment and early college programs.”

The latest data reveal that the nation will not meet the GradNation campaign goal of a 90% graduation rate by 2020 without dramatic single year improvement, which is made unlikely by setbacks from the pandemic. Deliberate state policy and community practice interventions will be required to build back and accelerate the progress the nation experienced before the pandemic.

The Grad Nation report outlines a series of policy recommendations for states to meet the current moment. These strategies include strengthening the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers, improving graduation rate data collection and reporting, aligning state graduation requirements with college admission requirements, and expanding the use of early warning systems.

Join the GradNation campaign today at 2:00pm E.T. to discuss the findings of this year’s report, featuring state education leaders and college students. Register here.

Authors and Sponsors
Building A Grad Nation is authored by Matthew Atwell, John Bridgeland, and Eleanor Manspile of Civic and Bob Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Together, the four organizations lead the GradNation campaign, a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent and prepare young people for postsecondary enrollment and the workforce. This year’s report, presented by lead sponsor AT&T, is the twelfth annual update on the progress and challenges in raising high school graduation rates.

Ellie Manspile
Operations Director, Civic
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