I posted this piece in the Brookings ‘Evidence Speaks’ series. The issue is whether the announced gains in high school graduation rates result from more students actually completing high school, or whether schools put diplomas in the hands of some students and pushed them out the door. What we are learning from investigations in states and districts around the country is that a lot of pushing out the door is happening, and it began around the time the high school graduation rate began being used as a measure of high school performance–an instance of Campbell’s Law.

An update since this report was released: the piece cites findings from a report of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education about inappropriate practices in Alabama that led to an overstatement of the state’s graduation rate. A colleague mentioned to me that the Inspector General had done a similar investigation in California and reached similar conclusions–the state’s practices led to an overstatement of its high school graduation rate. You can find the California report here. The two states did something similar in overstating their graduation rates. Alabama incorrectly counted diplomas given to students in special education, and those diplomas did not meet the state’s definition of a standard diploma, which is what the law requires when counting the high school graduation rate. California incorrectly counted diplomas given to students in adult education, which also did not meet the state’s definition of a standard diploma. California is a much larger state than Alabama and the overstatement of its high school graduation rate affects the national graduation rate.

A commenter noted that my piece did not answer the question posed in its title. That’s true–because we have no idea how widespread the practices are that the piece describes, such as giving students credit for a course they failed after one week of effort online, counting students as being in school when they are absent, or shipping students off to alternative charter schools which then ship them off to the adult-education system. But there is at least a basis for doubting that the rate is rising.


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