Digging Deeper: Why Graduation Rates Don’t Tell the Whole Story

April 24th, 2017

Category: Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper
“Digging Deeper” is a recurring feature at the Rodel blog where we take some data on Delaware public schools—and put it under the microscope. In the spirit of our Public Education at a Glance, we’ll present a straightforward look at the numbers, and search for some deeper meaning.


It may be stating the obvious, but a high school diploma is not the sole determinant of student success. Instead, we usually need to examine a student’s entire academic career—from kindergarten through 12th grade—to get a picture of how well prepared they are to pursue their interests after high school.

Likewise, disparities in academic achievement can offer insight into why low-income and minority students fall often behind their peers—and expose areas for intervention so all students have the best chance to pursue whichever options they choose after high school.

Diplomas matter, but higher educational attainment also has serious implications for students’ future.

Students of color and low-income students are more likely to miss the opportunities educational attainment brings. This includes higher earnings, lower unemployment rates, health benefits, and being more active citizens. However, without intervention, goals for increasing educational attainment are not likely to be reached, according to research by Complete College America and State Higher Education Executive Officers. The OECD also states that targeting inequities in education reform pays off in the form of better employment and more contribution to society and the economy.

The metrics below show that disparities in academic achievement appear as early as elementary and middle school and extend through high school and into college. By taking into consideration these other metrics, in addition to graduation rates, we will find opportunities for earlier intervention to improve the chances for success amongst students of color and low-income students in K-12.

Large achievement gaps exist between students of color and low-income students and their white and not low-income peers—some over 20 percentage points. These gaps persist throughout all grade levels.

Smarter Balanced and SAT scores reveal staggering disparities among minority and low-income students in both math and English Language Arts. Delaware students take Smarter Balanced in grades three through eight, allowing plenty of time for early identification of struggling students.

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All 11th grade students in Delaware take the SAT during the school day, offering a good measure of which students are on track for graduation and postsecondary life. SAT proficiency—a term used to describe meeting or exceeding the standard on the math and reading SAT—is a predictor for college readiness.

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Delaware graduation rates are fairly high—but so are remediation rates amongst minority and low-income students.

Despite a persistent disparity, the gaps in high school graduation between students of color and low-income students and their white, wealthier peers are closing. However, college remediation rates tell a different story—that many students of color and low-income students are not ready for academic life after high school. Remedial courses do not provide credits towards a degree, but still require students to pay tuition. Minority and disadvantaged students’ remediation rates are much higher than the state average.

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Closing the Gap: Solutions for increasing educational attainment for students of color and low-income students

Disparities in educational achievement throughout K-12 can be rectified through targeted interventions.

  • Empower students earlier in their academic career to make informed decisions about their futures such as getting early college credit, enrolling in a career pathway, or gaining work-based learning and leadership experience.
  • Adequately prepare students for life after high school by ensuring they are gaining access to career and technical education courses, which provide a disproportionate benefit to low-income students who specialize in a specific trade, according to the Fordham Institute.
  • Provide targeted interventions before 11th grade for students not meeting college-ready benchmarks.
  • Create an equitable K-12 education system by addressing disparities in student achievement and access to opportunity.
    • Advocate for policy changes and pilot programs to support student-centered learning
    • Advocate for changes in the funding system, so that low-income and other disadvantaged students receive equitable funding.

 Other ways to get involved:

  • Start early. Advocate for policies to support third grade literacy. A child who reads on grade level by third grade
  • Employers and business owners can build partnerships with Delaware Pathways, where they can host students in work-based learning experiences and help inform the pathways curriculum.
  • Parents and community leaders can mentor on the SPARC platform.
  • Students can develop their Student Success Plan and do interest inventories, skills assessments, college searches, career searches, resume building, or interact with mentors and business leaders on the SPARC platform.

Jenna Ahner


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