Enrichment Education

Graduation rates dip after decades of progress

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Story at a glance

  • High school graduation rates in 2021 fell for the first time in at least two decades, according to an analysis of data from 26 states.
  • States like Illinois, Oregon and North Dakota saw their graduation rates fall by at least 2 percentage points in 2021 over 2020, according to the education news nonprofit Chalkbeat.
  • Graduation rates had ticked up in 2020, but that was driven in large part by a number of states rolling back certain standard graduation requirements.

High school graduation rates in the U.S. have fallen for the first time in two decades following the first full school year littered with obstacles created by the pandemic, new research has found.

Using data from 26 states, the education news nonprofit Chalkbeat found that graduation rates had dipped in at least 20 states in 2021 — a school year marked by on-and-off remote learning and other pandemic-related complications.

Comprehensive national data likely won’t be available until 2023, the organization said.

High school graduation rates continued to tick up in 2020 — when COVID-19 shutdowns had forced schools to close their doors during the final months of the school year — but that was driven in large part by states waiving a number of standard graduation requirements.


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In 2021, states like Maine, Nevada and West Virginia saw their graduation rates fall at least 1 percentage point, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis. Other states saw more outsized declines, and graduation rates in Illinois, Oregon, and North Dakota plummeted by at least 2 percentage points.

Drops of less than a percentage point were observed in states like Colorado, Georgia and Kansas.

But even when high school graduation rates increased, growth was modest at best, according to Chalkbeat. In Florida, where graduation rates had been climbing by more than 2 percentage points each year for a decade, progress slowed substantially in 2021, and graduation rates only advanced by a tenth of a percentage point.

Educators worry that even students who did earn high school diplomas in 2021 did not get the most out of their education because of pandemic shutdowns and challenges associated with online learning and teaching.

“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,” Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and director of a research center focused on high school graduation, told The Associated Press (AP), which collaborated with Chalkbeat in analyzing graduation data from the last year.

“What we’re going to have to learn in the future is, how great is the concern?” he said.

Outside of school-related roadblocks to graduation like remote learning, high schoolers during the pandemic have faced a number of other challenges, like caring for family members or working long hours to help support households hit by the COVID-led recession.

Carly Lott, a counselor at Hug High School in Reno, told the AP she worried for her students last year after the hours on their pay stubs, which the school collects to offer elective credits, jumped from 20 to 30 per week to 40 to 50.

“​We have a significant group of kids on our campus who failed an entire year of high school,” she said. Those students are offered additional check-ins with Lott to help them graduate on time.

“I tell them, there will be a time that you’re going to want to give up,” she said. “That’s when we need to talk with you, because we can help you through that motivational slump.”


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