Graduation rates improved before COVID, growth can continue with targeted efforts

The high school graduation rate in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 85.8 percent in 2018–19, the final school year unaffected by the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest Building A Grad Nation report.

Released Oct. 6 by Civic and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, researched noted that states must make concerted, data-driven efforts to sustain improvements among key student groups, particularly following the disruption of the pandemic.

Driving the overall increase in the national graduation rate over the past decade has been substantial gains among Black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities and low-income youth. Notably, low-income students reached an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time in 2019. And Black students had a graduation rate of 79.6 percent, marking an increase of 0.6 percentage point since 2018 and 12.6 percentage points since 2011. Despite this significant progress, 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, according to the report.

“We know we have much more work to do to ensure every student has the chance to succeed after high school,” Deborah Delisle, president and CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said in a statement. “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.”

There is plenty of good news to be shared from the report. The 2019 graduation rate increased to:

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

The bad news, and what to do about it

Progress was undoubtedly made in the past decade, but the pandemic has had significant impacts on students — especially those groups already least likely to graduate. For instance, across 49 states and the District of Columbia, students experiencing homelessness showed a national graduation rate of 67.7 percent in 2019, the lowest graduation rate nation among all subgroups in the nation. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, over 1.3 million K-12 students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2018–19 school year — a 9.6 percent increase over the past five years, and a number likely even higher now as families lost jobs and homes as a result of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, English learners and students with disabilities continue to have national graduation rates well below their peers, and these groups too have been found to have experienced more extreme academic setbacks than many of their peers.

Deliberate state policy and community practice interventions will be required to build back and accelerate the progress the nation experienced before the pandemic, according to the Grad Nation report, which includes a series of policy recommendations for states to consider.

Among the recommendations:

  • Strengthen the transition from high school to postsecondary and careers
  • Continue to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 and address education gaps it exposed
  • Improve graduation rate data collection and reporting
  • Promote policies that reduce damaging academic disparities
  • Align state graduation requirements with college admission requirements
  • Expand the use of early warning systems to track