Opinion: Two states with surprisingly high graduation rates

In the second half of the 2010s, educational outcomes improved in two states to the point that a few days ago the Washington Post website ran this startling headline: “Why Alabama and West Virginia Suddenly Have Great High School Graduation Rates.”

The headline is correct. An analysis of the 2018-2019 school year (figures for more recent years are not available due to the covid-19 pandemic) shows that Alabama’s graduation rate was the highest in the nation. Iowa was second after being No. 1 for the rest of the 2010s, and West Virginia was third.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the three states were among only seven where more than 90% of high school students received a diploma.

The graduation rate of virtually every state has improved over the decade. Few came close to winning in Alabama and West Virginia. In the year 2010-2011, Alabama ranked 40th nationally with a 72% graduation rate, while West Virginia ranked 27th with 78%. Now they are first and third.

Those are impressive improvements. Almost too impressive: Mississippi’s graduation rate has improved in recent years after the state gave seniors multiple paths to a degree other than passing exams in four subjects. Critics say the change in Mississippi could allow more underprepared students to finish high school. Is that what Alabama and West Virginia are doing?

The Post quoted researchers from Tulane University and Johns Hopkins University as saying the two states were early, enthusiastic and persistent adopters of graduation targeting. They said Alabama and West Virginia took graduation seriously and made it a priority.

“In particular, the two states focused on … an early warning system, tracking behavior, attendance and grades in ninth grade, a critical point at which many prospective dropouts fall through the cracks as they transition from the high school to high school,” the Post reports.

The Johns Hopkins researcher said that while some children drop out of high school to get a job or because of pregnancy, the largest group are often students who fall behind in ninth grade and never catch up.

The Post said Alabama and West Virginia have hired outside vendors to identify at-risk students. They shared the information with teachers, who helped figure out exactly what was keeping the kids out of class or causing poor performance.

In the end, one researcher said the work simply consisted of “a lot of problem solving and little effort to keep students on track.” But such a rapid improvement should be cause for skepticism and fact-checking.

Here’s a check: Census Bureau statistics rank both Alabama and West Virginia “comfortably close to the top for the fastest growth in the proportion of youth with high school diplomas over the past decade,” the Post reported.

Also, the researchers found no attempts by the states to artificially inflate graduation rates. However, the Post noted that Alabama dropped its graduation requirement in 2013, one of several states doing so in the belief that they hurt lower-scoring students without conferring a clear benefit.

It turns out that states that adhered to the exam requirement had slightly greater increases in pass rates. But one of the researchers noted a possible silver lining to lowering graduation standards: Students who stay in school will gain knowledge in multiple subjects. That can only help them in the future.

The website included a graph of the growing wage gap between the drop-out wage and the median wage in the US. In 1975, dropouts earned 72% of the median wage. In 2020, they earned only 49%. This underscores the importance of a high school diploma, and Alabama and West Virginia may have some lessons that other states can copy.

— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise Journal

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