Alliance for Adult Education Foundation

Plunging Graduation Rates Signal Long Recovery


Education Week:

The last few years have presented a “perfect tornado of reasons” for students to leave high school, and states and school districts are starting to see the fallout. At least 31 states saw declining graduation rates for the class of 2021 overall, more than twice as many as in the previous year.

Low-income students and those with disabilities have been the hardest hit, with year-to-year declines for low-income students in 33 states and for students with disabilities in 22 states—more than twice as many as for the class of 2020, according to an analysis of state data by the EdWeek Research Center. The ongoing pandemic disruptions are rolling back years—and in some cases, a decade—of states’ progress in boosting graduation rates for students of color.

(A nationwide graduation rate total is not yet available. Though states are required to report disaggregated graduation rates to the federal government every year, many are behind, and full national data are not expected until next year. Not every state provided Education Week with data for all student groups in every year.)

Remote learning and repeated outbreaks and quarantines have led more students to miss school and fall behind in classes, while increased family illnesses and economic instability have given older students more reasons to leave school and start work early, according to Terri Martinez-McGraw, the co-director of the National Center for School Engagement, which studies and works with schools to prevent students from dropping out. At the same time, overwhelmed teachers and school staff have had less time and energy to track down students who are slipping through the cracks.

In the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, “kids have had a much longer time to be absent, fail classes and lose credits, have behavior problems,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “High schools tend to be pretty mechanical [in response]: You fail a class, you don’t get credits; you don’t have enough credits, you don’t get a diploma. So we are seeing the first downward trends in graduation rates in 15 years in 2021, and there’s a good chance that continues … because we know kids just still aren’t back.”

Graduation Rates Sink for Second Year, Especially for Vulnerable Groups

Graduation rate declines have accelerated in many states as the pandemic continued. An analysis of state data by the EdWeek Research Center finds 31 states saw drops in graduation rates for the class of 2021, compared to 14 for the class of 2020.

By Sarah D. Sparks

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