According to an analysis, high school graduation rates fell in at least 20 states after the pandemic disrupted the first full school year, implying that the coronavirus may have put an end to nearly two decades of national progress toward getting more students diplomas.
The drops occurred despite at least some states and educators relaxing standards in order to assist struggling students.
According to data obtained from 26 states and analyzed by Chalkbeat, the findings are the latest troubling trend in American education, which has been rocked by a pandemic that forced many students to learn remotely last year and continues to complicate teaching and learning. Some are concerned that the next several graduating classes will be even more impacted.
When schools closed for the final months of the school year in 2020, most states waived outstanding graduation requirements, and graduation rates increased. However, the situation was different for the class of 2021. Graduation rates fell in 20 of the 26 states that released their data. Comprehensive national data will not be available until 2023, at the earliest.
In some states, such as Colorado, Georgia, and Kansas, the declines were less than a percentage point. They were bigger elsewhere. Graduation rates fell by two points in Illinois, Oregon, and North Dakota, and by at least one point in Indiana, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
Growth was modest where interest rates rose. Graduation rates in Florida had risen by more than two points per year for the previous decade, but rose by only a tenth of a point in 2021, despite state officials waiving certain diploma requirements.
Carly Lott, a counselor at Hug High School in Reno, became concerned last year when the hours on her students’ pay stubs, which the school collects to offer elective credits, increased from 20 to 30 hours per week to 40 to 50 hours per week. Some students worked during remote school days, while others worked late-night shifts that exhausted them and made it difficult for them to concentrate on schoolwork.
De’karius Graham, a 19-year-old graduate from last year, saw firsthand how 12th graders struggled. There was no prom to look forward to, and all of his senior classes in Polk County, Florida, were online, which he describes as “low social interaction, low teacher interaction.” He frequently turned to YouTube to help him with difficult assignments.
Graham was also running his own landscaping business and helping his seven school-age siblings with their homework at the same time. He also spent time assisting a close friend who was having difficulty with online assignments due to a lack of reliable internet.
Despite these obstacles, statewide graduation rates are currently higher than they were a few years ago. However, the modest declines are notable deviations from recent trends. In 2001, an estimated 71% of students in the United States who began ninth grade at a public high school graduated four years later. By 2019, that figure had risen to 86 percent, though the country’s method of calculating it had changed slightly.
On the surface, that increase appears to be one of the most significant recent success stories in American education. A recent Brookings Institution study concluded that the gains were the result of new federal pressure on states and schools, with little evidence that long-term improvements were the result of lower standards.
However, the causes are hotly debated. According to a 2015 NPR investigation, many students graduated with the assistance of hasty, low-quality credit recovery courses. Some of the states with the highest graduation rates in the country, such as Alabama and West Virginia, also have very low test scores.
Some fear that the pandemic’s cumulative effects will disproportionately affect future graduating classes. In both Oregon and Nevada, the proportion of high school freshmen who graduated on time last year was about ten percentage points lower than before the pandemic. Attendance has also been unusually low this school year.
Schools have received large sums of federal aid that could be used to assist students in graduating, but Washington’s Reykdal claims that schools have recently been focused on staffing and safety. Nonetheless, some educators believe last year’s drop was an outlier. In Peoria, Illinois, where the graduation rate fell 4 points after climbing steadily for years, Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat thinks the district’s expanded “safety net” for struggling students will help.