National graduation report shows progress, but equity remains a challenge

The GradNation campaign, launched in 2010, aims to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate in the U.S. by 2020. The recently released 2019 GradNation report, using data from 2017, cites an all-time high of 84.6 percent for the Adjusted Graduation Cohort Rate — up from 79 percent in 2011 and a slight increase from 84.1 percent in 2016. While the 2020 goal may not be reached, significant progress has been made.

Equity continues to be a challenge, but, encouragingly, student groups experiencing opportunity and achievement gaps are contributing to gains in high school graduation rates. From 2011 through 2017, graduation rates rose nationwide from 71 percent to 80 percent for Hispanic students, 67 percent to 77.8 percent for African American students, 70 percent to 78.3 percent for low-income students and 59 percent to 67.1 percent for students with disabilities.

Additions to the 2019 report attempt to address critics’ concerns that graduation rates are being artificially inflated by lowering standards. The researchers developed the Secondary School Improvement Index to measure four factors they say combine to show how academic outcomes have increased alongside graduation rates. The four measures are: the percent of students scoring proficient on the eighth-grade reading and math National Assessment of Educational Progress exams; the percent of students receiving a 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam; and the percent of students graduating from high school in four years.

California by the numbers

First, the positive news: California’s graduation rate improved from 76.3 percent in 2011 to 82.7 percent in 2017. The state has also improved in every measure of the Secondary School Improvement Index within the same time frame, representing the second highest rate of improvement of all states.

However, to achieve the goal of 90 percent by 2020, California will need to graduate more than 30,000 additional students. California’s stated goal in its approved federal Every Student Succeeds Act Plan is that all high schools and student subgroups will be in the 90-95th percentile for graduation rates range by 2022. As of 2017, only two groups (Asian and Pacific Islander) have met this goal.

The following table shows California’s Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate for other student subgroups:

African American






American Indian/Alaska Native students Low-income students Students with disabilities Limited English proficient students














Further, more than eight out of 10 students who did not graduate on time were low-income students. To move toward California’s stated ESSA graduation goal, the state should focus efforts on identified student subgroups and on its 444 low-graduation schools, defined by ESSA as having an Adjusted Graduation Cohort Rate less than or equal to 67 percent and enrollment greater than or equal to 100 students. Of those 444 schools, there were a total of 41,042 non-graduates in 2017.

Policy and practice recommendations

The report offers a series of recommendations to aid states in reaching the 90 percent graduation rate goal. The recommendations include:

  • Promote policies that reduce damaging academic disparities. Citing how the data shows that African American, Hispanic and low-income students are less likely to be on track to graduate, the report recommends investing more in supports for these student groups. It also recommends weighted funding formulas to address inequities between high- and low-poverty schools. Lastly, it urges states and districts to ensure funding is tied to evidence-based policy and practice.
  • Promote greater alignment and clarity on how students with disabilities are treated across states. The report cites uneven graduation rates among students with disabilities and encourages the disaggregation of data related to the types of diplomas students with disabilities are receiving. It also urges states to ensure that graduation requirements and diploma options for students with disabilities align with postsecondary requirements.
  • Align diplomas with college- and career-ready standards.
  • Create state-specific high school graduation plans. States need individual plans to analyze which districts, schools and students need additional supports to graduate on time and be prepared for college and career.
  • Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers. It is critical that schools help students understand the postsecondary options available to them, including financial aid and the application process, as well as the course requirements to access certain pathways. Moreover, schools and districts should provide greater access to dual enrollment, early college, career academies, and career and technical education pathways.

The GradNation campaign is led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for Excellent Education.