Rise in Graduation Rates Doesn’t Necessarily Show Improved Achievement, Equality

High school graduation and dropout rates are often a barometer of success for an education system. Graduation rates alone, though, don’t tell the whole story. Two recent studies, examining the college and career readiness of college graduates and how income inequality affects graduation rates, respectively, show that the rise in U.S. graduation rates does not necessarily signal increased educational achievement or equity.

The College and Career Readiness of U.S. High School Graduates from Achieve
As part of an annual 50-state report on state’s college and career ready (CCR) policies, researchers analyzed student performance against CCR measurements. Overall, they found “too few high school graduates are prepared to succeed in postsecondary education, the military, and careers.” In this first report  - Achieve is also preparing one focused on postsecondary performance – they looked at students' performance on CCR assessments, completion of a rigorous course of study, and earning college credit while in high school. Calling on states to provide more than just graduation data, the authors conclude, “using CCR coursework completion and CCR assessment data against a state's graduation rate, we have found some states give out diplomas to many graduates without the academic preparation for college or career.”

In addition, data is not readily accessible from each state, making it difficult for policymakers to address problems. "The inconsistency and lack of availability of the data makes it challenging for policymakers, educators, families, and advocates to get a clear answer to the simple question of whether high school graduates are prepared for postsecondary success," said Michael Cohen, President of Achieve, in a press release. "We need more transparency from states if we are to move the needle on readiness in a significant way."

“Income inequality, social mobility, and the decision to drop out of high school” by Melissa S. Kearney, University of Maryland and NBER & Phillip B. Levine, Wellesley College and NBER, The Brookings Institution
In this paper the authors look at income inequality and whether students living at the bottom of the scale are motivated to improve their economic situation through high school graduation and beyond. They found the opposite: low-income children who grow up in states with greater income inequality drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers living in states with less income inequality. According to the authors,  students who live in an area with a consistently wide income gap may develop “economic despair” and feel that the gap is too great to close, so they give up and drop out regardless of the academic performance. Recommendations include not just interventions that help students stay in school, but ones that focus on the students’ perception that going to college is an attainable goal. 

Read more from the researchers on the Brookings website.


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