High School Graduation Rates Soar Even As Test Scores Fall

Brendan Clarey | August 4, 2023

(Chalkboard News) — Test scores have continually demonstrated that students across the nation lost academic ground during the pandemic, so why are some districts touting higher graduation rates than before the pandemic? Do graduation rates mean students know everything they should? 

School districts across the nation have posted high graduation rates, despite test scores that show student achievement declines since the COVID-19 pandemic. Research suggests that the high graduation rate across the country comes from lower standards, not increased learning. 

Douglas Harris, a professor at Tulane University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is spearheading research on how graduation rates continued to climb during the COVID pandemic despite all the disruptions it caused. 

“High school graduation is the outcome that was affected least by the pandemic,” Harris told Chalkboard in an interview. “It wasn’t affected at all.”

“If you look at the cumulative number of graduates through those years, there’s no change. The question is: Why?” Harris said. “Every other outcome — whether you look at test scores or mental health or study habits — everything got worse except for high school graduation.” 

“The main reason is that it’s not a standardized metric,” Harris said. “So really students just needed to show up and the standards were clearly lower. And that’s especially true about the spring of 2020 when all standards were relaxed either officially or unofficially.”

Harris told Chalkboard that the pandemic changed the rules because schools didn’t want students to feel as if they were being punished because of the pandemic.

According to state data, Chicago Public School posted an 83.2% four-year graduation rate for the 2021-22 school year, up from 79.3% in 2020-21 and 81.3% in 2019-20. Before the pandemic, CPS had a four-year graduation rate of 76.5%. 

But assessment data shows only 21% of CPS students met English language arts proficiency on the SAT in 2021-2022. Testing from the year before assessing those graduating in 2022 found that 23.1% were proficient in the English portion of the SAT. 

Statewide, 29.8% of students were proficient in the reading and writing portion of the test in the 2021-22 school year and 33% were in 2022-23. 

Only 20.5% of Chicago Public School students met or exceeded the SAT’s mathematics proficiency level in 2021-22 and 20.6% in 2020-21. That’s compared to statewide results of 28.8% of students attaining a score showing math proficiency in 2021-22 and 29.3% in 2020-21.

Like Chicago’s school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District released graduation rates from the 2021-22 school year, which increased from 64.5% to 71.1%. The statewide graduation rate, meanwhile, was 81% that school year.

But Detroit’s high schools with some of the highest graduation rates did not see academic achievement increases according to standardized test scores.

In 2018, DPSCD said in a document explaining school data that “SAT Benchmarks represent the likelihood of success in entry-level college courses. The benchmark for Evidenced-Based Reading and Writing is 480 and 530 for Math.”

According to statewide data, schools with the highest graduation rate increases also saw low student achievement on standardized test scores.

For example, Mumford High School saw an increase of over 21 percentage points in 2021-22 (from a 51.1% graduation rate to 72.2%) but SAT scores found only 9.4% of students met the state’s benchmark for proficiency in reading and writing and less than 5% of students met the benchmark for math.

Statewide, 30% of students tested proficient in math and 51.6% in the reading and writing portion of the assessment. Only 26.9% of DPSCD’s 11th-grade students who took the SAT met the state’s benchmark in reading and writing, and 8% met the proficiency standard in math.

Of the 68 students who took the SAT at Denby High School, fewer than three received a score above proficient in math and reading, according to state data. The district said the school’s graduation rate increased by 16.2 percentage points in 2021-22.

When asked for comment, DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti stood behind the district’s graduation rates and SAT scores.

“The district is proud of its improvement in both graduation rates and student achievement defined through state assessments and the PSAT/SAT,” Vitti told Chalkboard News in an emailed statement.

“Our goal as a district is to graduate as many students as possible in 4 years,” Vitti said. “At the same time, it is to ensure as many students as possible are work and/or college ready. Our internal data systems indicate that our PSAT/SAT college-ready results for 2022-2023 will exceed pre-pandemic levels.”

Vitti also told Chalkboard that the district’s classes follow state and national standards, especially in classes in core subject areas like English, math, science and social studies.

Harris noted that in the absence of standardized tests to determine what students actually know before graduation, course requirements become the way to determine what learning students receive.

“But again, if the teachers are relaxing the standards in those courses, then they’re learning less in the classes,” Harris said. “So we don’t really have a good way of capturing that.”

He said some states officially relaxed standards for graduation and where that didn’t happen there were unofficial messages from principals to go easy on students.

“I think we will need to give them a different name like the ‘COVID credentials’ to explain why students who graduated during COVID have less learning than what we’re used to,” Harris said.

“There are more graduates,” Harris said. “They just don’t know as much. They’re coming out with less learning.”