Graduation rates are up, but the United States still lags behind other countries
One of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promises was his pledge to improve high school graduation rates as part of his "Race to the Top" initiative. He also set a goal to make the United States "first in the world again" in graduation rates.
Since our last update, all states have adopted the use of the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate. This metric tracks a group of students in a single high school for the duration of their education and records how many graduate, while adjusting for transfers and students that leave the state.
The adoption of the new standard is important because it allows federal officials and statisticians to better compare graduation rates between different states and gives us a clearer picture of the overall trendline. So what does the newest data show?
Graduation rates continued to increase under Obama's presidency. He triumphantly announced earlier in October 2016 that the high school graduation rate reached a new high of 83.2 percent during the 2014-15 school year, a 4.2 percent increase compared to the end of his first term.
The White House's press release notes that the gains were spread out among a wide variety of student groups, as shown in the chart above. The government draws its data from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
The center's latest report for the 2013-14 school year doesn't include the more recent 83.2 percent figure, but confirms the numbers presented for 2013-14. It also shows that according to an older measure called the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, the graduation rate increased from 80 percent in the 2010-11 period to 82 percent in 2012-13.
"We're pretty confident that the increase in the graduation rate is real," said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group. "The increase has been consistent over time . . . We have every reason to believe that more kids are graduating now than when Obama took office."
According to Lovell, the focus on improving rates began with a bipartisan agreement between state governors in 2005, and was later codified into law in 2008 by the Bush administration. Obama built on George Bush's accomplishments by making the regulations even stricter, such as introducing a new law requiring high schools with at least a third of students not graduating to implement comprehensive reform.
Despite these domestic gains, the United States still lags behind other rich countries when it comes to high school graduation rates.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's 2016 report on global education shows that based on 2014 data, the United States has a first-time graduation rate of 82 percent and ranks 23rd out of 37 developed countries. In comparison, the previous year's report ranked the United States 17th out of 26, with a rate of 80 percent. The best-performing countries in 2014 were Portugal and Finland.
Andreas Schleicher, deputy director of education for the OECD, explained to WAMU Radio in 2012 that the lack of improvement wasn't due to any drop in the U.S. graduation rate. Instead, other developed countries improved faster and pursued more aggressive strategies to boost their numbers.
High school graduation rates certainly improved over the course of Obama's presidency, but the United States still consistently ranks in the bottom half of wealthy countries in the measure. We rate Obama's promise as Compromise.
Department of Education website, "Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)," accessed November 2, 2016.
Email interview with Miguel Gorman, media officer at OECD, November 2, 2016.
Email and phone interview with Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, November 2, 2016.
National Center for Education Statistics, "Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2013," accessed November 1, 2016.
NPR, "The high school graduation rate reaches a record high -- again," October 17, 2016.
OECD, "Education at a glance 2016: OECD indicators," accessed October 31, 2016.
OECD, "Education at a glance 2015: OECD indicators," accessed October 31, 2016.
Phone interview with Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, October 31, 2016.
WAMU American University Radio, "Graduation rates increase around the world as U.S. plateaus," February 21, 2012.
Whitehouse.gov, "Fact sheet: President Obama announces high school graduation rate has reached new high," October 17, 2016.
Whitehouse.gov, "Fact sheet: the race to the top," November 4, 2009
Youtube, "Blueprint for change -- education," October 15, 2008.
Lack of good data makes it impossible to know yet
In the 2008 campaign when Barack Obama pledged to improve high school graduation rates, it seemed to us that it would be an easy figure to check down the road.
Of course, all one would need to do is compare graduation rates before he took office and at the end of his first term. Then we would give him a grade on his progress
As it turns out, all we know is that the graduation rate appears to have improved between 2007 and 2009, which says nothing about changes under the Obama administration. But we'll get back to that. First a little background:
Obama promised to improve the high school graduation rate because the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development -- better known by its acronym "OECD” -- had been publishing annual reports saying the U.S. was in the bottom third of its list of 26 countries in high school graduation rates, behind Korea, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
So Obama committed to both improving high school graduation rates and improving the country's performance relative to other countries.
As president, Obama embarked on an ambitious education reform package through the Race to the Top competitive grant program, which leveraged $4.5 billion in potential grant funding to get states to make changes, such as allowing charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. One of the program's goals was to improve graduation rates.
But we aren't likely to know how Obama has helped or hurt high school graduation rates for several years to come. And even when the data becomes available, some will inevitably dispute the statistics as accurate measures of high school graduation rates as well as their comparability with other countries' graduation rates.
The entire notion of a high school graduation rate is complicated -- there are a handful of ways to calculate high school graduation rates depending on how you count substitute certificates and degrees, transfer students, and the length of time it takes for a student to graduate. Even in 2012 not all states use the same methodology for tracking graduation rates.
The U.S. earned a world ranking of 21st out of 28 in high school graduation rates in the OECD's latest report on global education based on 2009 data. It's worth noting that this represents the number of people who graduated as a fraction of the total number of people who were old enough to graduate that year in the U.S. That may be a good indicator of what percentage of our population graduates high school, but it doesn't say much about how high schools perform in retaining students through graduation.
Another statistic also reported by the OECD called "upper secondary completion rates” shows that the U.S. is second, behind only Ireland, when you look at graduation rates among students who were enrolled in high school in the 9th grade. We asked Dirk van Damme, an education analyst with OECD, why the U.S. is so much higher on one list than the other. He said many U.S. students drop out before high school, so they don't count against the completion rate.
The latest figures we have about U.S. high school graduation rates comes from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. The center calculates something called Averaged Freshman Graduation Rates for Public School Students, which is an estimate of the number of students who started as freshmen and finished high school within four years (in public school). In the 2008-2009 school year, the U.S. graduation rate was 75.5 percent, up from 74.7 percent the year before.
An education think tank called Editorial Projects in Education uses a separate calculation based on federal government data, which also suggests that high school graduation rates are getting slightly better. The research group said the 2009 graduation rate was 73.4 percent, up 1.7 percentage points from the year before.
Chris Swanson, who oversees the group's research on graduation rates, said we can't know if Obama kept his promise, even with the 2009 data.
"Those would be graduates from the school year that had already started when Obama was elected – not really enough time to judge the administration's impact on graduation,” he said.
This year all but two states have adopted a national standard for counting high school graduation the same way. That means we'll be able to assess the next president's record on high school graduation in ways we can't with Obama.
Since national data for high school graduation rates aren't available for 2010, 2011 or 2012, we'll leave this promise In the Works.
Education Week, National Graduation Rate Keeps Climbing; 1.1 Million Students Still Fail to Earn Diplomas, June 7, 2012
Education Department, National Center for Education Statistics, Averaged freshman graduation rate for public high school students and number of graduates, by state or jurisdiction: Selected school years, 1990–91 through 2008–09
Email interview with Chris Swanson, Vice President of Research and Development at
Editorial Projects in Education, Aug. 20, 2012
Email interview with Spencer Wilson, media manager for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Aug. 21, 2012
Email interview with Dirk Van Damme, head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Aug. 21, 2012
Interview with Jason Amos, communications director for the Alliance for Excellent Education, Aug. 20, 2012
Interview with Joanna Fox, researcher at the Everyone Graduates Center in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Aug. 17, 2012
Grant program encourages schools to improve graduation rates
President Obama has packed a number of his campaign promises related to education into his "Race to the Top" program, which seeks to encourage innovative approaches to teaching and learning by having states compete for $4.35 billion worth of grants from the Department of Education. The program was funded through the Obama-backed economic stimulus package approved by Congress in February 2009.
In a speech in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 4, 2009, Obama announced the criteria for states to win the grants. And increased graduation rates is specifically mentioned as one of the key criteria.
Specifically, the Notice of Priorities for the grants says that states will be graded on "the extent to which the State has ambitious yet achievable annual targets for increasing graduation rates."
Competition for the grants will be conducted in two rounds -- the first starting this month and the second in June of next year -- with winners announced in April and September 2010.
So his program to increase graduation rates is underway and we rate this promise In the Works.
Department of Education, Press release: "President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan Announce National Competition to Advance School Reform," July 24, 2009
Department of Education, "Race to the Top Fund"
Department of Education, "Race to the Top Fund; State Fiscal Stabilization Fund Program; Institute of Education Sciences; Overview Information; Grant Program for Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems; Notice Inviting Applications for New Awards Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009"
YouTube, President Obama on Race to the Top , July 24, 2009
Washington Post, Op-ed: "Education Reform's Moon Shot," by Arne Duncan, July 24, 2009
White House Web site, "Fact Sheet: The Race to the Top," Nov. 4, 2009