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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. January 13, 2016

High school graduation rates are at 'new highs,' says Obama in State of the Union

During his 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama cited education as an area of bipartisan agreement.

"We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job," he said. "The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, (and) boosted graduates in fields like engineering."

We wanted to see if high school graduation rates have never been higher.

At first glance, he appears to be correct.

In December, the U.S. Education Department reported that the rate had reached 82.3 percent, and the department billed it as a "new record high."

But there's an important caveat.

As the department acknowledged, the 82.3 percent rate was "the highest level since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago."

It's a key distinction because high school graduation rates can be a slippery topic and difficult to track.

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Different states and different school districts have used different measures over the years. For example, some states included private school students who received public funding. That's why a uniform system was adopted.

The last time the rates were close to being this high was for the class that graduated in 1970, when the Education Department pegged the rate at 78.7 percent.

Yet because the current method for calculating rates is only 5 years old, it's not clear that the 1970 rate, or even the subsequent ones, are comparable to current rates.

Since the mid 1970s until around 2008, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual rates consistently stayed at 75 percent or below.

With the new system, begun with the 2010-11 school year, rates were calculated to be 79 percent once again and have since been rising, albeit slowly. It was 80 percent for 2011-12, 81.4 percent for 2012-13, and 82.3 percent for 2013-14, the most recent rate available.

Even when we checked this statistic two years ago, there was a consensus in the education community that graduation rates were rising. But uncertainty persists about those old rates.

If Obama had restricted his time frame to the past four years, the numbers would be on firmer ground.

But he didn't. He gave the impression that these were the highest rates ever.

Because Obama's statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Medium, "President Obama's 2016 State of the Union Address," Jan. 12, 2016

U.S. Department of Education, "U.S. High School Graduation Rate Hits New Record High," Dec. 15, 2015, accessed Jan. 12, 2016

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says high schoolers are graduating at an all-time high," March 26, 2014

Center for Public Education, "High school graduation rate at an all-time high," Feb. 20, 2014, accessed Jan. 12, 2016

National Center for Education Statistics, "Public High School Graduation Rates," May 2015, accessed Jan. 12, 2016


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High school graduation rates are at 'new highs,' says Obama in State of the Union

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