Rising Graduation Rates: What You Need to Know to Ensure that All Students Have a Pathway to Success

The U.S. high school graduation rate continues to climb, with recent reports suggesting an all-time high of 82 percent. That should come as welcome news. But we should think critically about our collective path to progress. In most districts, graduation rates are buoyed by the emergence of credit recovery programs – alternative schooling aimed at helping students catch up after falling behind. Falling hardware costs, high speed internet access, and a multiplicity of self-paced or adaptive software programs have made it easier for districts to launch programs that enable students who have to juggle real-world demands to progress at their own pace. And they are having an impact.

But the Center for Education Policy characterizes dropout recovery as “highly decentralized, unregulated and under-researched.” Concerns about “diploma mills” abound. Savvy parents and educators wonder whether alternative programs are adequately preparing students for their lives after graduation.

Rising graduation rates alone won’t provide students with the competencies to succeed. How should state and district leaders evaluate the quality of programs to ensure that district improvement doesn’t come at the expense of opportunity for students? Here’s our short list of red flags and non-negotiables.

Ask What Comes Next
A high school diploma, while vital to opening doors for the future, will do little to keep those doors open if graduates lack the fundamental skills and knowledge that document is supposed to signify. Accelerated credit-recovery programs might be appealing to students in the short term, but they may not provide a pathway to a student’s goals after high school. Not all community colleges accept alternative education graduates. Even the Department of Defense has expressed skepticism about the readiness of students who participate in self-paced, online programs.

Completion is a worthy goal, but it should not create a ceiling. Students who enroll in credit recovery programs are often years behind their peers. Alternative educators need to meet them where they are. But parents and district leaders should set college ready expectations. That starts with asking whether recovery students enter into or succeed in college at similar rates. Ask local military recruiters whether students complete basic training? Are students offered transitional support for finding jobs, enrolling in trade schools or applying for college? Students who succeed in credit recovery programs should be able to pass high stakes exit exams to preserve the same postsecondary and workforce options as traditional students.

Ask Who’s Teaching
Much of the debate in alternative education and credit recovery centers on creating exceptions. And exceptions matter. Like the students they serve, recovery programs don’t fit neatly within vestigial policies that govern seat time or “count days.” But exceptions often come in the form of waiver requests for uncertified or non subject matter teachers.

But flexibility can’t come at the expense of great teaching. And the impact of great teaching is not diminished in credit recovery programs. Technology can play a powerful role by customizing content delivery and enabling students to accelerate through content areas that they have mastered. It can produce data to tailor academic plans and inform instruction. A blend of wraparound and social services often necessary to help students navigate life obstacles that threaten to derail their academic and career goals. Credit recovery programs can leverage accredited programs, licensed teachers, and professional certification. But credit recovery can also be a photocopied packet of papers or multiple-choice guess-and-click computer program.

Certified, professional teachers have an outsized role in ensuring that students develop the academic skills that they need to succeed after graduation. They know when to raise the bar, and when to pursue a new strategy. And they help students to develop resilience, and other non-cognitive skills that a high school diploma represents.

If It Looks Like A Duck…
Credit recovery courses with higher completion rates than the equivalent traditional courses should be looked upon with significant skepticism. Students in need of credit recovery, after all, are overwhelmingly those whose initial pathway to graduation was blocked by significant life obstacles. Those obstacles do not suddenly disappear when a student enrolls in a credit recovery course.

The faster and more sharply graduation rates rise in the wake of the adoption of a credit recovery program, the more reason there is to cast an uncertain eye at the program. Marginal gains can and should be expected — the result of offering an alternative route to students who have only a class or two to complete before graduation. These “last milers,” however, are typically the minority of individuals in need of credit recovery. A more typical recovery student is two years deficient in credit accumulation and all too often has math and reading skills that fall within the expected range of middle school students. Helping these individuals earn meaningful diplomas is a slow (but worthwhile) process.

These are absolutely the right questions to be asking – questions which credit recovery providers and the schools with which they partner should be able to answer. These are not questions intended to rain on anyone’s parade. The advent of record-setting graduation rates nationwide may indeed be something to celebrate. But a far greater and more justified celebration should be reserved for the day in which we can say we have truly offered every American an equitable chance to earn a high school diploma, that every one of those diplomas stands for a comprehensive and consequential education, and that every graduate is ready for their next step in education or a career.

A former public school teacher, Beverly Perdue served as the first female Governor of North Carolina from 2009 to 2013. She is the founder of the non-profit organization, DigiLEARN: Digital Learning Institute and serves as a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors. Ron Klausner serves as chief executive officer of Graduation Alliance, an organization that provides highly effective postsecondary planning, alternative education, and workforce training programs to ensure that every student has an opportunity to succeed during and after high school.