Graduation rates hit new high but troubling issues remain

Graduation rates hit new high but troubling issues remain

It’s that time of year: high school commencements are mostly completed, the school year is ending, and the Tallman Education Report will be on road for the Kansas Association of School Boards summer advocacy tour for the next five weeks.

The tour start tomorrow in Hays with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting, followed by a noon lunch meeting in Oakley; the first of 23 stops across Kansas to talk with school board members and other leaders about the future of Kansas public education.  In particular, we will focus on the so-called “Rose” standards identified by the Kansas Supreme Court as the threshold learning levels for every child and adopted by the 2014 Legislature as the goals for K-12 education.  We will be exploring what those standards are, how they measured, how Kansas “measures up” and how we can improve the performance of our students and schools.

The Rose standards really speak to preparing students for successful lives.  We can celebrate some good news about one standard of achievement: a new report finds that the U.S. graduation rate hit an all-time high of 80% in 2012.  Kansas topped the national average at 85%, ranking 14th in the nation.

I’ve developed the following chart from information in that report, based in the most recent national data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Over the past 10 years, the national graduation rate for students within four years of starting high school rose from below 75% to 80%, while in Kansas it increased from 77% to 85%.  Kansas previously trailed its 10-state region (North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas), but now slightly exceeds the regional average.  Kansas also does better than the 10 states with most similar percentage of low income students – the key demographic in student achievement – and slightly gained ground on the top 10 states in overall graduation rates.

Despite this positive news, there are some important issues to face.  First, having the highest graduation rate ever still isn’t high enough to meet the projected needs of students, the state and the nation.  Experts says by 2020, approximately 90 percent of jobs will require a high school diploma, which means even Kansas is falling about five percent short.  Students who fail to complete high school simply won’t quality for most jobs.

Second, students from middle-income and higher-income families are already at that target: the new report shows that 95% of these students in Kansas graduated on time in 2012.  However, only 76% of Kansas students who were eligible for free or reduced price meals graduated on time in 2012.  That is still above the national average of 72% for low income students, but the 19% income level gap in Kansas is higher than the 15% gap nationally.

Third, the percentage of low-income students has risen sharply both nationally and in Kansas.  In 2001, 38.3% of students nationally and 33.4% of students in Kansas qualified for free or reduced price meals.  By 2012, the numbers were 49.6% nationally and 48.9% in Kansas.

Finally and most important, the income gap creates a vicious downward cycle. Low income students are more likely to fail to complete high school on time, which means they are also less likely to ever graduate and receive additional postsecondary education.  High school drop-outs have much lower salaries and much higher poverty rates than than individuals who finish high school, and earnings further increase with every level of postsecondary education attained.

In other words, because lower income students are more likely to drop out of high school, they are also much more likely remain in poverty or at low income levels – which means their children will also be more at-risk of dropping out.  The changing national and state economy has sharply reduced low skill jobs and kept these wages low – which helps explain why the percentage of low income students is growing.

We will examine all of these issues at the KASB advocacy meetings and through this blog in the coming weeks and months.