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There is no such thing as “good” and “bad” graduation rates — not even in a pandemic

  • Madison Schiefelbein
  • October 21, 2020

For years, political and education leaders have publicly pined for a 90 percent national graduation rate — a noble but arbitrary goal that suggests districts that have already met that standard are “doing just fine.”

Indeed, that seems to be what one administrator was thinking when he responded to a campaign we launched, a few years back, that started with a very simple premise: The Dropout Crisis is Real.

“Our graduation rate,” the administrator wrote in response, “has been between 97 and 99 percent for years, so it’s not ‘real’ everywhere.”

There is no cause for anyone to question the administrator’s dedication to his students. A search of state education records shows that, indeed, his district — in a city with a median annual income of more than $125,000, in which less than 1 percent of families are living under the poverty line, and where taxpayers spend $4,000 more per year per student than the national average — has one of the highest graduation rates in the country. In the way we’ve come to think about such things, he’s doing “good.”

And yet, even in what many fellow educators would argue are some of the most ideal conditions imaginable, that administrator’s district doesn’t get every student across the finish line on time. In any given year, every freshman classroom in that administrator’s district might include a student who, for one reason or another, won’t graduate on time — or at all.

In the midst of such overwhelming privilege, is it acceptable to leave one student in every classroom behind? When it comes to ensuring students are able to obtain the absolute minimum level of education needed to have a fighting chance in today’s economy, is there ever an “acceptable” level of loss?

In a word: No.

Now our nation is facing an educational crisis of tremendous magnitude. Millions of students have disengaged, and some have not checked in with their schools whatsoever, since the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly shut down in-person learning last fall. Even as schools have returned — some with better online programming, others in hybrid structures, and some in fully in-person environments — the disengagement has continued.

So, is there an acceptable level of loss in these circumstances?

Well, the answer is still no.

No matter what a district’s graduation rate was before the global health crisis, there were still students who needed additional support. And today, of course, there can be no question: More students need more support than ever before.

Some districts might be able to do this by themselves. Most will need some help. All can take advantage of best practices for social-emotional support, attendance recovery, credit recovery, online curriculum and more.

Yes, these are very tough times. But “good enough” wasn’t actually good enough in the “old normal” and it’s not good enough in the new normal, either.

With the right practices and the right help, everyone can do more. Because every student matters.

Graduation Alliance partners with school districts, workforce agencies and various other organizations to help create alternative paths for individuals who need flexibility and support to earn a diploma. To learn more about our services, click here.