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MATT BARNUM, KALYN BELSHA and THOMAS WILBURN
Chalkbeat Chalkbeat and Associated Press
High school graduation rates dipped in at least 20 states after the first full school year disrupted by the pandemic, suggesting the coronavirus may have ended nearly two decades of nationwide progress toward getting more students diplomas, an analysis shows.
The drops came despite at least some states and educators loosening standards to help struggling students.
The results, according to data obtained from 26 states and analyzed by Chalkbeat, are the latest concerning trend in American education, which has been rocked by a pandemic that left many students learning remotely last year and continues to complicate teaching and learning. Some fear that the next several graduating classes could be even more affected.
“It does concern me,” said Chris Reykdal, the schools superintendent in Washington state, where the graduation rate fell by about half a point. “I don’t ever want to see a decline. We’ve made such steady progress.”
In 2020, when schools shuttered for the final months of the school year, most states waived outstanding graduation requirements and saw graduation rates tick up. But the picture was different for the class of 2021. In 20 of 26 states that have released their data, graduation rates fell. Comprehensive national data will likely not be available until 2023.
Those declines were less than a percentage point in some states, like Colorado, Georgia and Kansas. Elsewhere, they were larger. Illinois, Oregon, and North Dakota saw graduation rates drop 2 points, and Indiana, Maine, Nevada, South Dakota, and West Virginia saw declines of at least 1 point.
Where rates increased, growth was modest. Florida had seen graduation rates jump by more than 2 points every year for a decade but gained just a tenth of a point in 2021, even as state officials waived certain diploma requirements.
“We do have to be concerned that grad rates are down and that some number of kids that earned a diploma, they’ve learned less than prior years,” said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and director of a research center focused on high school graduation. “What we’re going to have to learn in the future is, how great is the concern?”
Last year’s senior class saw school disrupted in distinct ways. In Nevada’s Washoe County schools, for example, the graduation rate tumbled by 2.6 points as many teens worked longer hours or spent more time caring for siblings.
One of last year’s graduates, 19-year-old De’karius Graham, had an up-close view of how 12th graders struggled.
There was no prom to look forward to, and all his senior classes at Florida’s Polk County schools were online, an experience he describes as “low social interaction, low teacher interaction.” He often turned to YouTube to figure out confusing assignments.
At the same time, Graham was running his own landscaping business to make money and helping seven school-age siblings with their homework. He also spent time working with a close friend who struggled with online assignments without reliable internet.
Despite those challenges, statewide graduation rates are still typically higher now than they were a few years ago. But the modest declines are striking departures from recent trends.
In 2001, an estimated 71% of U.S. students who started ninth grade at a public high school graduated four years later. By 2019, that number had jumped to 86%, although the nation’s way of calculating that has changed slightly.
On its face, that increase is one of the biggest recent success stories in American education. A recent Brookings Institution study concluded that the gains were a result of new federal pressure on states and schools and found little evidence that the long-term improvements were due to lower standards.
The causes are much debated, though. A 2015 NPR investigation found that many students graduated with the help of hasty, low-quality credit recovery courses. Some of the states with the nation’s top graduation rates, like Alabama and West Virginia, also have very low test scores.
Some fear that cumulative effects of the pandemic stand to hit future graduating classes hardest. In both Oregon and Nevada, the share of high school freshmen who finished last school year on track to graduate was about 10 percentage points lower than before the pandemic. This school year, attendance has also been unusually low.
Schools have received large sums of federal aid that could be used to help students to graduate, but Washington’s Reykdal said schools have recently been focused on staffing and safety.
Still, some educators are hopeful last year’s dip represents an anomaly. In Peoria, Illinois, where the graduation rate fell 4 points after climbing steadily for years. Every week, a team of educators identifies students with failing grades for extra support. The district has also added ways for working students to earn credits in the evenings or on weekends, and has hired three “navigators” to help students who are in the juvenile justice system to finish school.