Let’s Keep Moving the Needle on Graduation Rates

Published oct. 14, 2014

Everyone Graduates Center is reporting that, for the first time in history, the nation has crossed the 80 percent high school graduation rate. The next step in addressing the nation’s dropout problem is to meet the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 which many districts are now on pace to do. 

This positive trend in graduation rates has come from nearly a decade of effort; the results illustrate how much improvement is possible when there is focused action, backed up by data and resources. Diverse communities and school districts have taken the charge to reduce the numbers of dropouts, enabled by state policies such as the inclusion of 5 and 6 year graduation rates in state accountability formulas. From small rural districts like Jones County, GA, to large urban districts like Los Angeles, CA, and San Antonio, TX, action plans emerged. A set of common strategies have followed:

  • Early warning systems that identify students in need of support and help them to stay or get on-track starting as early as 6th grade
  • Transition activities that create extra time for rising 9th graders to get acclimated to the high school and ready themselves to tackle high school work
  • Academic and social supports aimed to keep ninth graders on track and provide more supports for youth who are struggling in high school.

School districts—with outside partners—are also devising outreach and reengagement strategies that identify seriously off-track youth or dropouts and connect them with education options that meet their needs and get them to the graduation finish line.

One important laboratory for such research-based strategies has been the 27 school districts and two states that received funding for dropout prevention and recovery through the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Graduation Initiative. Jobs for the Future has been a partner with The Millennium Group, Great Schools Partnership and Everyone Graduates Center, providing technical assistance to the sites, focused on helping grantees fully implement their strategies and sustain their key work. We are finding that while some districts are struggling to maintain this work as the grant period closes, others are thoughtfully using what they’ve learned to design systemic and sustainable systems to support struggling students and ensure they have enough support not just to get to graduation but to arrive there with the skills needed to take their next steps beyond high school. Des Moines, IA, and Lincoln, NE, are two notable examples of this thoughtful work.

Time marches on—as we all know—and reform areas come and go. But even as states gear up to implement new Common Core assessments or tackle new reform areas, it is critical for them to maintain a focus on maintaining progress towards raising the graduation rate.

Several actions would help us stay on target for 2020—leadership from the federal government (and continuing resources), state policy (that holds districts accountable for high standards and high graduation rates) and visibility for frontrunner communities that are seeing the strongest results from their efforts. Finally, we need more study of what works for the populations that are still experiencing especially low graduation rates—young men of color, special education students and youth whose first language is not English.