Last week, America’s Promise released its 2019 “Building a Grad Nation” report monitoring the nation’s progress toward a 90% public high school graduation rate. It celebrated the progress made between 2011 and 2017, wherein each year saw record graduation rates, and the percentage of non-graduates dropped by a quarter. It also implored greater focus, noting that to meet its goal by 2020, schools would have to double their rate of progress.
A 90% goal is nothing if not ambitious, as it would cut the percentage of non-graduates by more than half in ten years. America’s Promise wants more students—especially marginal students at the greatest risk of dropping out—to leave school “prepared to immediately enter postsecondary education or the workplace.” So do we all, but ambitious statistical targets like a 90% graduation rate, especially when sought quickly, are dangerous because they are as likely to produce empty victories as improved outcomes, especially for the marginal students the targets are purported to help.
One reason a 90% target is problematic is because all graduation requirements aren’t equal, and therefore, neither are graduation rates. Kentucky, the state with the 4th-highest grad rate in 2017, at 89.7 percent, is an excellent example. So close to the 90% goal, it may seem odd that Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recently sought to toughen the state’s graduation requirements, which would inevitably send grad rates lower. The problem is that Kentucky’s graduation requirements are so weak that more than a third of graduates get a meaningless diploma, one that does not come with the “skills necessary to succeed in college or the workplace.” Lewis is rightly prepared to knowingly forego Kentucky’s enviable spot on the road to 90%, precisely because maintaining it would allow more, not fewer, graduates to leave school unprepared.