During May and June, high school seniors across the United States gather to don a cap and gown in a crescendo of four years of hard work. For the students it is a momentous occasion in their lives. Yet, it could also be part of a momentous trend across the United States, depending on how many students actually receive their graduation certificates. In 2013, the high school graduation rate hit 81.4%, according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation Report put out by the organization GradNation. This is up slightly from 79% in 2011 and 80% in 2012, and is moving steadily towards a goal of 90% of high schoolers graduating in 2020. So why have graduation rates risen, and how can they continue to rise? Research has illustrated several factors that have counted to higher graduation rates. First, targeted efforts have helped retain minority students from dropping out. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, in 2000 13% of all African-American students dropped out and 27% of Latino/as. By 2012, these numbers had declined to 7.5% of African-American students and 12.7% of Latino/a students. Retention of minority students has had a substantial effect on the graduation rate.
Importantly, interventions at the district and school level have helped mold schools into places where students can thrive and graduate. Throughout the ’90s, organizations like the Center for Research on Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), a joint venture between John Hopkins and Howard University, began to study how individual high schools could improve in instruction and administration to keep from losing minority students. This helped to target the 900 to 1,000 high schools in the U.S. where graduation was 50% at best, and the 2,000 high schools where a freshman class will shrink by 40% before senior year. Since then many states have launched sophisticated programs to target their lowest performing schools and reconstruct them into more successful institutions.
Also important to the rise of graduation is improvement in instruction much earlier than high school. In fact, one of the most important indicators of whether a student will graduate high school is how the student reads at third grade. Students living in poverty tend to enter school with a paucity of language, which can be exacerbated by the time they deal with high school courses if initiatives are not put in place by third grade. For this reason, states have made significant efforts, such as NC’s Read to Achieve, over the last decade and a half to target third grade reading. No doubt as further and further emphasis on third grade reading occurs, more and more students will continue to graduate high school almost a decade later.
Despite gains, however, there are some areas in the United States which have not seen the same growth. Often times in the United States, socioeconomic categories overlap. Areas with greater socioeconomic hardships–and minorities with a greater rate of poverty compared to the state average– tend to face difficult circumstances when helping those minority students succeed in schools. For instance, Arizona, whose overall population living in poverty is 9% White while 33% Latino/a, also has significantly lower graduation rates among Latino/a students compared to the national average. In fact, it is one of the places where high school graduation is declining in the nation. To continue to grow graduation rates will take an increased effort to help the gap close, not widen, between the privileged and less privileged members of our society.