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April 12, 2013

Can Numbers on Rising Graduation Rates Be Trusted?

Watch Can We Trust Increases in High School Graduation Rates? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Over the past four years, data shows that the high school graduation rose five percentage points to 78.2 percent; a significant jump after stagnating for almost 40 years.

However, it is unclear whether this statistical jump is due to real progress, or whether states and school districts are massaging the numbers to look better on paper.

“If a school wants to raise their performance levels, either test scores or grad rates, and they have students who are low-achieving who will drag them down, then one — one alternative they have is to transfer them into an alternative system that either is run by them, their own — the district itself, or outside the districts,” said Russell Rumberger of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some schools also offer students the opportunity to make up failed classes or missing credits online to prevent them from dropping out, although the quality of these classes is questionable. Others allow students to switch to home-schooling without following up on their education.

However, regardless of whether schools are padding their numbers, high school graduation rates will still have to jump significantly to meet President Obama’s goal of producing the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.


“For many kids to really believe schooling is going to lead somewhere, you have got to have really strong pathways to adult success,” – Robert Balfanz, Johns Hopkins University.

Warm up questions

1. What keeps you motivated to finish school?

2. What is a GED? How is it different from a high school diploma?

3. How do you think your school’s graduation rate compares to others?

Discussion questions

1. Why is it important to get a high school diploma?

2. Why is it a problem if schools and states are not counting their graduation rates correctly?

3. Do you know anyone who has dropped out of school? If so, why did they drop out?

4. What could schools do to make more students want to stay till graduation?

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