Is the rise in high school graduation rates real?

High-stakes school accountability and strategic behavior

Reynolds High School students take part in a processional march at graduation ceremony.

For many decades, economists and policymakers expressed concern about stagnating high school graduation rates. Some analyses, using data up to about 2000, suggested that the graduation rates up were actually declining while other analyses suggested only slow growth. This added to concern about the effectiveness of America’s schools.

These, and other lackluster results, led to the passage of the landmark federal No Child Left Behind policy. Known for increasing high-stakes testing, one of the least remarked aspects of the law has been the increase in accountability for high school graduation rates. Moreover, in the law’s immediate aftermath, graduation rates started to rise. This upward trend has continued for almost two decades, seemingly making it one of the great accomplishments of U.S. school accountability—and of the entire educational system—over the past quarter-century.

Yet, few have really celebrated this apparent victory. Skepticism has emerged that the improved graduation metrics really reflect increased student skill and knowledge. Schools have lowered their standards and simply made graduation easier, both by making it less difficult to pass courses and by shifting students into weaker credentials.

This report is the first to comprehensively examine the various factors that could lead to distortion in high school graduation rates. The report starts with a test of whether the timing of graduation rate rise, coinciding with NCLB, reflects causal effects of the law. Our results confirm that accountability drove rising graduation rates. Then, we move on to three types of analysis about the quality of credentials. First, we show that the rise in graduation rates was actually higher in states that had graduation exams, where lowering standards would have been most difficult. Second, we show that the rise in high school completion came with a reduction in GEDs and shift to more rigorous, regular diplomas. Third, we find that online credit recovery courses have been on the rise, but they can only explain a small fraction of rising graduation rates. Overall, these results suggest, while strategic behavior has influenced some graduation measures, the national rise in high school graduation rates has been a significant success for school accountability policy and the school system generally.

Download the full technical report here. Or, read a summary blog post of the main findings on Brookings’s Brown Center Chalkboard.