Officially, the U.S. has a high school graduation rate of 81 percent — a historic high.

But our months-long investigation, in partnership with reporters at 14 member stations, reveals that this number should be taken with a big grain of salt. We found states, cities and districts pursuing a range of strategies to improve the grad rate:

  • Some are mislabeling students or finding ways of moving them off the books. In Chicago, reports Becky Vevea of WBEZ, "the district is misclassifying hundreds of students who enroll in its alternative schools." District officials say that they're investigating the issue.
  • Schools in places like Detroit and Camden, N.J., are making it easier to get a diploma. In all, 21 states offer alternative, sometimes much easier, paths to graduation.
  • And in Des Moines, Iowa, and suburban Atlanta, we found schools digging in and actually giving students the long-term support required to raise the grad rate for real.

Indeed, in many places there are more than one of these strategies at work, suggesting that the 81 percent figure mixes the good, the bad and the ambiguous.
Dropout, 'Fadeout' Or 'Pushout'?

Since 2002, states have been under pressure from the federal government to increase their graduation rates. So, how to go about that?

Let's think for a second about why students leave high school.

Researchers talk about the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course performance, which reliably predict graduation as early as third grade. The Everyone Graduates Center and Civic Enterprises have published influential studies (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also funds coverage at NPR, including education) of the four major reasons teenagers leave school without a degree.

  1. A minority, they found, were really unable to cut it academically.
  2. For many, life issues got in the way, such as pregnancy, incarceration or health problems. Some had missed too many days. Some had to work to support their families.
  3. Poignantly, a large group of students said that they felt bored, frustrated or disillusioned; this process was dubbed "fadeout."
  4. Others were made unwelcome at school because of behavior or other issues; they were victims of "pushout," as the phenomenon came to be known.

So, for school systems that want to raise graduation rates, the first evidence-based strategy to try is early intervention. Technology helps here — nothing fancy, just databases enabling teachers to identify students early and track them as they move from elementary through high school.
Georgia created a program that assigned graduation coaches to students throughout their high school years (the program has since been defunded by the state).

Portland, Ore., is intervening as early as preschool, based on research showing that it improves the high school graduation rate for low-income students down the line.

To combat "fadeout," school systems like Cleveland have created a "portfolio model." The thinking here is that if students have access to schools that match their interests — say, in the sciences or the arts — they'll stay more engaged. "More experiential or outdoors or student-driven, for the artist or the tinkerer," says Nettie Legters, a longtime dropout researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Credit Recovery

Meanwhile, to help students dealing with life issues, school systems across the country have created or expanded "credit recovery" programs and alternative schools.

Credit recovery is as old as extra credit and summer school. It used to be granted mostly at teachers' and schools' discretion. But in recent years, with great pressure to improve graduation rates, it went big. For-profit companies like K12, National High School and The Keystone School began offering mostly online courses for high school credit.

These could be taken after school, during free periods or in the summer. If you were balancing parenthood, jobs or illness, or if you were simply goofing off and bombed algebra, you could take a credit-recovery course in the computer lab and still graduate on time.

But there's a drawback to credit-recovery courses, especially when they're delivered online with little face-to-face teaching support. There is little transparency or standard-setting. Investigations across the country have turned up cases of students answering multiple-choice tests and getting a semester's worth of credits in just a few weeks.

"Some of these credit-recovery programs frankly aren't terribly rigorous and aren't preparing students well for what's next," says Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at The Education Trust, a nonprofit education research group.

In Detroit, more than a third of the students at Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy are in credit-recovery programs.

Jeremy Singer, a teacher in his first year at Cody, told Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra that letting kids catch up at the last minute "doesn't feel right" to him.

But Robert Donoghue, the school's counselor, says that credit recovery can allow students to work at their own pace and get more one-on-one help.

Credit recovery is especially popular at alternative schools. The two strategies have been spreading hand in hand.

Often, alternative schools opened in the wake of "dropout factories" being shut down. The thinking was that these smaller, dedicated schools offer students much needed flexibility. They often hold classes in compressed morning or evening blocks and include wraparound services such as mental health counseling. They're meant to be supportive places where an overage senior coming back from a prison sentence, a pregnancy or a serious health issue, say, didn't have to feel ashamed or alone.

"It's been life-changing," Raynard Gillispie, a student at one such school in Chicago who was formerly involved in gang violence, told WBEZ's Vevea.

But, says Legters, "many alternative schools are terrible." She says they have insufficient resources, low academic standards and a tendency to concentrate hopelessness.

The Alternatives To The Alternatives: Pushout

Pushout is the fourth major cause of dropping out identified by experts — after academics, life issues and fadeout. It's controversial; it puts more of the blame for dropouts onto schools. And there are concerns that pushout intensified as a result of the federally required focus on graduation rates.

"One of the criticisms I have of the graduation rate as an accountability measure," says Russell Rumberger, a researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, "is it encourages schools and districts to discharge high-risk kids." He says there's research going back decades showing certain schools being used as "dumping grounds."

A first-semester senior who is failing, for example, might be transferred to an alternative school at the last minute in his educational career. "If you can find another school to take him, he gets off your books."

In Chicago, one of the biggest school districts in the country, a WBEZ and Catalyst investigation found that the district is misclassifying students who enroll in these schools as "out-of-district transfers."

That designation means that when a Chicago student leaves a traditional high school for an alternative school, the district doesn't have to count that student as a dropout. But if the student manages to earn a diploma, the district still gets credit.

John Barker, chief of accountability for the Chicago Public Schools, said the district is aware of the dropout loophole and is working to address it. "We're not planning on having any data that would be erroneous," he said. "That's not our plan."

Tracking dropout data is complex and, in some instances, problematic. Texas reports the nation's second-highest graduation rate, and the highest in the nation for African-Americans and Hispanics. But Kate McGee of member station KUT in Austin found that the figures exclude tens of thousands of students from the dropout count.

For instance, schools are able to report, with little documentation, that students have left the country or are being home-schooled.

"The real issue is: Where are these students going?" Julian Vasquez Heilig, an education policy expert at California State University, Sacramento, told McGee. "They're being defined away."

The Texas Education Agency defended the graduation rate, saying that documentation requirements offer much needed flexibility to districts doing the hard work of tracking students in a large and mobile state.

Splintering The Diploma

Yet another negative consequence of the emphasis on the graduation rate, Rumberger says, is the proliferation of alternative paths and alternative diplomas — what he calls a "splintering of the diploma." The high school equivalency exam, or GED, which can be taken at any age, isn't counted in a state's official graduation rate. But 21 states have more than one official diploma. Some offer as many as four or five, all with various levels of rigor.

In North Carolina, for example, Elizabeth Carter graduated with a 22-credit, state-minimum diploma after dropping out. It's not accepted by the state's four-year universities.

Lowering the bar happens in other ways too. Last year in Camden, N.J., Sarah Gonzalez of WNYC reports, almost half of the area's high school seniors graduated through an appeals process because they couldn't pass the required exams to graduate.

Why is this a problem?

The answer to that question gets at the very meaning of a high school diploma.

On the one hand, all on its own, the diploma leads to a substantial increase in lifetime earnings. High school dropouts have very little opportunity in society, and they know it. "Nowadays you can't get a job at McDonald's without a high school diploma," one young man told me in New Orleans.

On the other hand, a diploma is expected to lead somewhere. It should certify that students are ready for college or further training, which most living-wage jobs now require. That's the mantra of the Common Core State Standards: "College and career ready."

Some of these alternative paths were created with the laudable goal of providing broader access to educational qualifications.

But Rumberger says that if you widen the doorway too much, you risk "diluting" the diploma until it becomes meaningless.

He cites recent research from the Brookings Institution that looked at young people's chances of achieving a middle-class income by age 40. The researchers found that it wasn't enough just to earn a regular high school diploma; you had to achieve a GPA of at least 2.5 (a B- or C+ average) to reap long-term social and economic benefits.

That finding suggests that bending the rules and lowering standards may hurt young people more than it helps them.

My colleague Cory Turner asked Mike Cohen, of the standards-focused nonprofit Achieve, "So, are we lying to kids" by lowering the standards or creating alternative diplomas?

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