High School Graduation Rates Increase after 30 Years of Stagnation

Richard Murnane, richard_murnane@gse.harvard.edu, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Ashley Inman, ashley_inman@hks.harvard.edu, 707 332-1184,Education Next Communications Office

High School Graduation Rates Increase after 30 Years of Stagnation

Increased K‒8 math skills, decreased teen birth rates, and lower incarceration rates may have lifted completion rates between 2000 and 2010

After 30 years of stagnation, high school graduation rates increased by 6 percentage points between 2000 and 2010, while the black-white and Hispanic-white graduation rate gap narrowed to 8.1 and 8.5 percentage points, respectively, according to new research from Education Next. In “Graduation Rates on the Rise,” authors Richard J. Murnane and Stephen L. Hoffman report that improved K‒8 education, decreased teen birth rates, and lower incarceration rates all may have contributed to the rise in graduation rates after 2000. The article is now available at https://www.educationnext.org.

By the late 1990s, long-term NAEP scores for 13-year-olds indicated that low-performing students were better prepared upon entering high school to meet the standards that had been introduced in prior years. For example, while the 25th percentile math score for black 13-year-olds was unchanged between 1986 and 1999, it rose between 1999 and 2008 by the equivalent of more than a full grade level. The authors conclude that these increased math skills “may have reduced the learning challenges [for vulnerable students] of completing high school graduation requirements.”

The authors explain that changes in birth and arrest rates among teens may also have played roles in increasing rates of high school completion. Between 1990 and 2008, birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old girls declined by 44 percent, and by 60 percent among black teens. The authors point out that since “children born to teenage mothers are prone to develop problems that inhibit academic success, the lower teen birth rate could have contributed to both the increases in the mathematics skills of 13-year-olds and to an increase in graduation rates overall.” The decline “could have reduced the number of girls who left school to care for children and thus resulted in higher graduation rates.” Between 1994 and 2009, there was a 47 percent decline in the arrest rate of teenagers for violence-related offenses. “Involvement with the criminal justice system typically results in a marked increase in absences from school,” the authors note.

Between 1900 and 1970, high school graduation rates rose dramatically, from 6 percent to 80 percent, but then rates stagnated between 1970 and 2000. In explaining why, the authors write that the increasing availability of the General Educational Development credential (GED) played a role. For example, when the state of California decided in 1974 that it would accept the GED as an alternative to the high school diploma, graduation rates dropped by 3.6 percentage points for males, and by 2.6 for females.

States have taken a number of actions to improve students’ skills over the past several decades. They established minimum competency tests, increased course requirements, and introduced more challenging exit examinations. A Nation at Risk, published in 1983, built on this sentiment, recommending that students complete four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies. One study found that exit exam requirements reduced high school graduation rates by about 2 percentage points, with larger effects concentrated among black students. Murnane and Hoffman suggest that students who drop out may be ill-prepared to meet more stringent requirements. They may correctly perceive that, given their low cognitive skill levels or behavioral characteristics, they are in any case unlikely to earn much more as a high school graduate.

Despite the recent increase in high school graduation rates, the U.S. is still below the average for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Murnane and Hoffman conclude that raising high school graduation rates further “will require a set of complementary investments and structural changes in the education system,” and that “investments aimed at improving the school readiness of economically disadvantaged children are critical.”

About the Authors

Richard Murnane is professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Stephen Hoffman is a doctoral student.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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