More Students Are Earning High School Diplomas

A distinct post-pandemic pattern is emerging across the nation’s schools: test scores and attendance are down, yet more students are earning high school diplomas. A new report from Washington, D.C., suggests bleak futures for many of these high school graduates, given the declining rate of college attendance and completion. The numbers are stark in a March 2023 report by the D.C. Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization. Almost half the students in the district – 48% – were absent for 10% or more of the 2021-22 school year. Seven years of academic progress were erased in math: Only 19% of third through eighth graders met grade-level expectations in the subject in 2021-22, down from 31% before the pandemic.

At the same time, the rate of high school diplomas earned rose to a record 75%, up from 68% in 2018-19. Although the city is producing more high school graduates, fewer of them are heading off to college. Within six months of high school graduation, only 51% of the class of 2022 enrolled in post-secondary education, down from 56% from the class of 2019. Based on these trends, the D.C. Policy Center predicted that only eight students out of every 100 ninth graders in the district would earn a post-secondary credential within six years of high school graduation. Before the pandemic, 14 out of every 100 ninth graders were predicted to hit that important milestone.

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, is collecting reports from around the country to summarize what is happening in schools beyond the well-documented nationwide slide in test scores. “My general perception is basically that the trends in D.C. are true everywhere—attendance is way down, grades are up, high school graduation is slightly up, college enrollment is down,” said Polikoff.

The Washington report described how school leaders are still struggling to persuade students to come to school regularly in the 2022-23 school year, despite such incentives as student awards and celebrations and efforts to contact parents. The report also connected the dots between poor attendance and low test scores. Students who were designated as “at-risk” because they were homeless, in foster care or their families were poor enough to receive social welfare benefits, had the lowest academic outcomes, reflecting that these groups of students had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the previous school year. Only 15% of “at-risk” students met grade-level expectations in reading. In math, only 6% did.

A majority of D.C. public school students are Black, but just 9% of the city’s Black high school seniors were deemed to be college or career ready in 2021-22, according to an SAT benchmark, a three percentage point decline from before the pandemic. More research is needed to understand why so many schools are giving high grades to students who haven’t mastered material and graduating so many ill-prepared students. In some cases, schools have eased graduation requirements. Washington suspended a requirement for high school students to perform 100 hours of community service, but students were supposed to be in school for a minimum number of instructional hours again in 2021-22. It’s puzzling how the rates of high school diplomas increased, given that absenteeism was so high.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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