The nation’s graduation rate rose again to a record high, with more than 84 percent of students graduating on time in 2016, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.
That is the highest graduation rate recorded since 2011, when the Education Department began requiring schools to report rates in a standardized way. The graduation rate rose by nearly a percentage point from 2015 to 2016, from 83.2 percent to 84.1 percent. It has risen about 4 percentage points since 2011, when 79 percent of students obtained a high school diploma within four years.
All minority groups saw a rise in on-time graduation rates in 2016, but gaps persist. Only 76 percent of black students and 79 percent of Hispanic students graduated on time, compared to 88 percent of white students and 91 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students.
“Although students of color and low-income students are graduating at higher rates, we must be mindful that there are still significant gaps for historically underserved students which translate into lost potential for our communities and our country,” said John B. King Jr., who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017. He now heads the Education Trust, which works to close the achievement gap. “The urgent work to close these graduation rate gaps must be a national priority.”
The Obama administration considered the rise in graduation rates among its most important achievements in education, but experts have cautioned those rates can be a poor measure of how prepared young people are for work and higher education. Even as they are graduating at higher rates, students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of reading and math achievement, is unchanged or slipping.
There are other reasons to be skeptical. Some districts have used questionable methods to get students to the finish line, including softening grading scales and using credit recovery programs, which allow students to take abbreviated versions of courses to make up for failing grades. In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, officials are investigating accusations that administrators inflated grades so students could graduate. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has begun an investigation into allegations that Ballou High School students were allowed to graduate despite being chronically absent.
In the D.C. area, Maryland was 12th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with nearly 88 percent of students graduating on time. Virginia was close behind, with nearly 87 percent graduating on time, putting it at 20th. Schools in the District ranked last in the nation, with a graduation rate of 69 percent in 2016, though the rate rose to 73 percent in 2017.