After several years of nearly flat results, Kansas public high school graduation rates have increased more rapidly over the past two years.
The state’s overall four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate – essentially the percentage of students who graduate “on time” within fours year of their freshman year, increased from 80.7 percent in 2010 to nearly 85 percent in 2012. The rate increased only one percent over the next four years to 85.9 percent in 2016, then increased to 86.8 percent in 2017 and 87.3 percent last year, 2018.
In additional to the overall increase, disparities are narrowing between historically low performing and high performing groups because minority, poor and disabled groups have seen greater increases in graduation rates.
For example, free lunch students, who account for about 40 percent of public school enrollment, lagged behind the overall average by nearly 10 percentage points, but their graduates rate increased more, from about 66 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2018. (Based the average of male and female students eligible for free meals.)
Only one group – Asian female students – exceeds the State Board of Education’s target goal of 95 percent, and only reduced-lunch eligible females and Asian males exceed 90 percent. Both white males and females exceed the overall state overage.
Generally, male students have a lower graduation rate, with special education, Hispanic, American Indian, black and free lunch eligible males all below 80 percent. Homeless students, who are not differentiated by sex, have the lowest graduation rate at 68.7 percent.
However, most of the lower performing groups have made more progress over the past eight years. Both male and female black, Hispanic, free lunch, reduced lunch and special education students all improved by more than 10 percent since 2010. An exception was homeless students, who had the lowest rate of improvement, 3.4 percent.
What do the trends in graduation rates say about Kansas school funding and student achievement?
First, the adjusted cohort graduation rate formula took effect in 2010, the first year of major cuts in school funding following the Great Recession, and graduation rates rose in 2011 and 2012. School leaders would argue those classes benefited from the substantial increases in funding following the Montoy school finance case from 2006 to 2009.
Improvement slowed or leveled off from 2012 to 2016 as school funding struggled to keep up with inflation and most districts reduced positions and programs from 2009 level levels. Graduation rates improved in 2017 and again in 2018, the first year of substantially higher funding in response to the Gannon school finance case.
Second, while this indicates funding is an important factor, the State Board of Education has also made improving graduation rates one of the five key outcomes in the Kansas Can program, so districts have made graduation a higher priority.
Third, the significant differences among student groups is a major reason Kansas courts have found the school finance system to be inadequate under the Kansas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to make “suitable provision for the educational interests of the state.”
Fourth, the faster growth among low-performing groups indicates that both the state and school districts are directing more resources and improved strategies to address these students. For example, the state has funded Jobs for America’s Graduates-Kansas programs which currently serves approximately 3,800 students in 65 schools in 35 districts. The program, which provides intensive support for at-risk students who are at-risk of failing to complete high school, has 98 percent graduation rate. But is also expensive, costing an average $1,500 per pupil.
Fifth, this helps show why funding matters, especially in helping students who face special challenges due to poverty, disability, and other factors. Additional funding provides the resources to give both students and teachers more help in overcoming these challenges.
Sixth, a 6.6 percent increase in average graduation rates over eight years – an average of 0.8 percent per year – may sound painfully slow. But in context, percent of Kansans over 24 with a high school diploma or equivalent rose from 28.5 percent in 1940 to 91 percent in 2017, or 62.5 percent in 77 years, an annual average of 0.8 percent. As far back as KASB has school finance information, school funding has generally increased faster than inflation, providing more “real” resources to improve results. The exception was from 2009 to 2017.
(Note that the rate for adults over 24 is higher than the four-year adjusted cohort rate because it includes individuals who take longer than four-years to graduate or earn a GED, as well individuals who move in and out of the state.)
Seventh, improving graduation rates are critical to both individual and state economic well-being. On average high school graduates earn more than those who don’t finish high school, and a high school diploma is the prerequisite for postsecondary education required for other jobs that pay even more. Studies indicate a higher percentage of future Kansas jobs will require education beyond high school than most other states.
Here are the annual graduation rates for all public school students and subgroups from 2010 to 2018.