by Hayley Didriksen
More than ever, many career paths require a high school diploma as a basic necessity, with an increasing number of jobs also requiring at least some postsecondary credentials. Research finds that individuals with high school diplomas have greater financial stability and socio-emotional well-being as adults, have better health outcomes, and are less likely to be incarcerated as compared to those with less education. In recent years, schools across the nation have made a concerted effort to reduce high school dropout rates and increase students’ access to postsecondary education opportunities. High school graduation rates nationwide have made a steady, but slowing, increase over the past decade. As a data point, high school graduation rates represent one indicator of school improvement and success.
Historical Graduation Trends in New England
The New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) Common Data Project currently tracks high school graduation, extended high school graduation, dropout rates, college enrollment, persistence, and completion across New England. This project’s annual report includes historical data since 2009 by state and aggregate rates across New England. The report also includes disaggregated data by student characteristics (also referred to as “subgroups”), which allows us to examine secondary and postsecondary outcomes by economic disadvantage, English learner status, disability status, gender, and race or ethnicity. Taken together, the data presented offer valuable insights about trends over time, variation between states and subgroups, and areas for growth in the future.
As part of participation in the Common Data Project, the New England state education agencies (SEAs) agree to common targets for each of the student achievement outcomes and monitor progress toward these targets annually. The current target for the region: at least 90% high school graduation rate for all student groups from a given cohort.
Similar to national trends, high school graduation rates in New England have steadily increased since 2009. The regional graduation rate decreased by less than half of one percentage point from 2017 to 2019. The 2019 graduation rate remains higher than rates all years prior to 2017. The growth in graduation rates was more dramatic in earlier years and slowed once the regional average surpassed 85% in 2013.
New England High School Graduation Rates (4-Year)
Digging Deeper into the Data
The overall upward trend in high school graduation rates over the last decade is promising. When we disaggregate the data by subgroup, however, a more complex story emerges. As reflected in our 2020 report, multiple student subgroups are approaching or have already met the NESSC targets for high school outcomes, but achievement gaps persist. Despite rising rates across nearly all subgroups, substantial achievement gaps remain, particularly for Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students, who continue to graduate high school at far lower rates as compared to their White and more affluent peers. Fewer English learners and students with disabilities, too, graduate as compared to their counterparts. And while some of the gaps between subgroups have been shrinking over time, there’s still much work to do to eradicate the persistent inequities that plague our education system.
Tracking longitudinal data—that is, data that are tracked for over multiple time points—can help us monitor trends and patterns over time and identify areas for improvement. The positive trends may make us feel optimistic, in that we are making progress and moving in the right direction. But some important questions remain: When will we meet our goals? And how soon will we finally close the gaps between subgroups?
Using Historical Data to Look Into the Future
In addition to progress monitoring, longitudinal data can be used to make mathematical inferences and predictions about future outcomes. Using statistical modeling, we can use historical trends in graduation rates for the region to estimate the year in which the region’s high school graduation rate target (90%) will be met. In order to estimate future outcomes, we first construct a model best fit to the series of historical data points. This model can take into account variation in the data and non-linear trends (such as faster rate increases in early years and slower rate increases in more recent years). Simply put, we can fit a line to the historical data that we can follow into the future; the line will eventually intersect the target line at 90%, which provides us with the anticipated year in which the target will be met. Historical data trends suggest, for example, that the New England states are on track to meet the goal of 90% high school graduation rates by 2023.
This same modeling technique can be applied to student subgroup trends as well. When we disaggregate the data, we see that at the current rates, deep inequities are anticipated to persist well into the future. Economically disadvantaged students in New England, for example, are projected to meet the 90% high school graduation rate target in 2027, whereas their non-economically disadvantaged peers have maintained a rate at or above 90% since 2011. Black, Hispanic, Multiracial, Native American students, as well as male students, are on track to meet the 90% target in five to seven years. Other subgroups fare far worse: students with disabilities and English learners are projected to meet the graduation target in 2053 and 3399, respectively.
Year Subgroup Met or is Expected to Meet 90% High School Graduation Rate
Limitations of Statistical Forecasting
To be clear, statistical modeling has its limitations. These estimates are based on a relatively small dataset, and the accuracy and reliability of our models can increase as more data becomes available. Moreover, these models are not impervious to external events. The consequences of the pandemic, in particular, have yet to be fully seen; however, early indicators suggest that the current circumstances will adversely affect student learning and academic outcomes, as well as exacerbate current inequities, in ways that will be felt for years to come.
A Call for Action
In the end, these numbers are just predictions. Research has proven that with systematic and targeted interventions it is possible to disrupt patterns, address inequities, and improve outcomes. While the positive trends in the data may give us hope that change is underway, our students cannot wait. There’s an urgency to act now, to accelerate change, and to do everything possible to close the gaps.