The last few years have presented a “perfect tornado of reasons” for students to leave high school, and states and school districts are starting to see the fallout. At least 31 states saw declining graduation rates for the class of 2021 overall, more than twice as many as in the previous year.
Low-income students and those with disabilities have been the hardest hit, with year-to-year declines for low-income students in 33 states and for students with disabilities in 22 states—more than twice as many as for the class of 2020, according to an analysis of state data by the EdWeek Research Center. The ongoing pandemic disruptions are rolling back years—and in some cases, a decade—of states’ progress in boosting graduation rates for students of color.
(A nationwide graduation rate total is not yet available. Though states are required to report disaggregated graduation rates to the federal government every year, many are behind, and full national data are not expected until next year. Not every state provided Education Week with data for all student groups in every year.)
Remote learning and repeated outbreaks and quarantines have led more students to miss school and fall behind in classes, while increased family illnesses and economic instability have given older students more reasons to leave school and start work early, according to Terri Martinez-McGraw, the co-director of the National Center for School Engagement, which studies and works with schools to prevent students from dropping out. At the same time, overwhelmed teachers and school staff have had less time and energy to track down students who are slipping through the cracks.
In the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, “kids have had a much longer time to be absent, fail classes and lose credits, have behavior problems,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “High schools tend to be pretty mechanical [in response]: You fail a class, you don’t get credits; you don’t have enough credits, you don’t get a diploma. So we are seeing the first downward trends in graduation rates in 15 years in 2021, and there’s a good chance that continues … because we know kids just still aren’t back.”
States losing hard-won ground on diplomas
Graduation-rate progress held steady for the class of 2020, whose members had mostly completed their requirements by the time the pandemic began to shutter schools in March 2020. States and districts also offered broad flexibility to students in meeting credit hours and seat time, course and testing requirements, and other graduation requirements.
The graduation flexibility states provided in 2020 “held students harmless” for academic disruptions, but they also may have given educators a false sense of security with regard to high school students’ progress, Balfanz said. State flexibility was intended to be temporary, but students in the subsequent high school classes became more disengaged, not less.
“In Arizona, we’ve lost 10 years of attainment; there’s been such a huge slide,” said Stephanie Parra, the executive director of ALL in Education, an Arizona nonprofit that works with districts to improve graduation rates. “We are going into the third school year still navigating a pandemic, and now we do have clear data that schools are struggling and our students are definitely going to need a lot of support to bring them back.”
The Grand Canyon state saw the biggest graduation declines in the nation. It graduated only 75.7 percent of its students on time in 2020-21, less than it has at any time since the state began calculating four-year cohort data in 2011. The decline has hit students of color particularly hard; graduation rates have dropped 5 percentage points for Black students, 4 percentage points for Hispanic students, and nearly 6 percent for Native American students since 2018-19. The state board of education also has found rising student mobility among schools since the pandemic.
Across states that provided data, Asian students were the only group for which fewer states saw declines in graduation rates in 2021 than in 2020. In the same time, graduation rates have declined for Native American, Latino, and white students in the majority of states, and for Black students in 24 states.
States rethink permanence of graduation flexibility
In the meantime, states have begun to transition from short-term graduation waivers to more long-term restructuring of requirements.
While 43 states waived at least some diploma requirements for exit exams or end-of-course exams for the class of 2020—when many assessments could not be administered because of lockdowns and limited online testing capabilities—states have varied in their permanent plans for assessments. In July, for example, New Jersey passed a new law eliminating high school exit exams as a diploma requirement. But earlier this month, the Massachusetts education department raised the score students need on the state exam in order to graduate with a regular diploma, though the new rule will not take effect until the class of 2026.
In Michigan, a coalition of business groups, teachers’ unions, school boards, and parents has called for the state to add a 13th year of schooling to account for the number of students who have fallen significantly behind in credits.
Washington state passed a broad array of waivers for graduation requirements in spring 2020, and the graduation rate that year actually rose by 2 percentage points, to 82.9 percent, compared to 2019, continuing a steady trend. By 2020-21, however, the graduation rate dropped nearly a half percent, to 82.5 percent.
“We were recognizing that this educational disruption was continuing, and continuing to have impacts,” said Randy Spaulding, the executive director for the Washington state board of education. “We were really, initially at least, writing rules for one class at a time in terms of what flexibility they would get in the requirements. … This latest set of rule-making phases it down to really look at the structure of our graduation requirements and also which classes were most directly impacted in terms of their high school requirements.”
In Washington and other states, dropout-recovery advocates say the move to more mastery-based, rather than seat-time based, credit has proved to be the most helpful to students’ long-term academic recovery. Arizona districts are piloting portfolios and other formats for assessing and providing credit, and Ohio passed a law, effective this January, allowing students to get credit for multiple content areas from the same course.
However, federal data suggest that high school grade inflation has accelerated during the pandemic, and groups like the Center for American Progress raised concerns that high school diploma requirements will fall increasingly out of alignment with college admission requirements.
“I think that COVID has really opened up a lot of windows of opportunity because now we know that we can actually teach our kids in a variety of different ways. It doesn’t have to be [that] they have to be in their seat every single day in order for them to graduate,” said Martinez-McGraw of the National Center for School Engagement.
Washington previously required students to both complete an overall number of credits and to pass a set of core courses. Now, the state has updated requirements so that districts must provide more guidance and help students create postsecondary plans, but their diploma requirements can take into account more subject-matter mastery and focus on individual students’ plans. For example, a student who failed freshman English during the pandemic but who has since passed a higher-level English course could be given credit for both. And a student could prioritize retaking a failed course that is crucial for their planned course of study in college.
Find out how three teenagers who fell off track in the thick of the pandemic found their way back on a path to high school graduation.
“If I have to retake my math course, because math is really important to what I need to do, I may not meet my 24 [total] credits because I’m repeating a course and I don’t get credit for it twice. But maybe it’s more important for my college admission to have a third or fourth math and one less science,” Spaulding said. “Those are the kinds of decisions students might have had to make.”
“We’ve tried to be really intentional, so that we’re getting students the best chance to meet the requirements,” he continued, “but if they’re not able to do so, then we wanted to create some flexibility for them.”
Similarly, Arizona high school graduation advocates expect the state to continue graduation-requirement waivers for seat time and credit hours for years to come.
“That flexibility is something that came as a result of the pandemic, and I believe it is something that will continue because it has been appreciated and welcomed by school system leaders to deliver instruction more flexibly for graduation,” said Parra of ALL in Education. “We definitely now have a moment going forward to really rethink how we support students and families as a whole and make sure that when they come to school, that they have all of the supports and resources that they need to be successful.”
Deeper connections needed to re-engage students
However, Balfanz and others who study dropout causes argue states and districts need to go well beyond academic recovery to reignite students’ interest in and connection to school.
“We’ve got a huge high school crisis,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit focused on student absenteeism. Federal data show that even by the end of the 2020-21 school year, nearly 40 percent of schools did not offer full-time in-person classes, and researchers, teachers, and students themselves have found students less engaged during remote learning.
While nearly all schools returned to full-time, in-person instruction during the 2021-22 school year, schools and individual students have continued to experience extensive disruptions from the delta and omicron waves of the pandemic. Chang said exposures and family or personal illness have worsened student disengagement and chronic absenteeism in the last two years.
“You know, kids, when they miss a lot of school, they feel nervous about coming back because they feel so far behind. And I think this affects the kids at the secondary in particular. So if you quarantine for five or 10 or 15 days [during a semester], they can’t figure out how to catch back up to class,” Chang said. “We’ve seen a lot of kids leaving [high school], not just kids who have traditionally struggled.”
Nathan Fochtman of Washington state is one of them.
“I was never a grade-A student or anything, but I was on track to graduate and I was passing most of my classes” as a junior in spring 2020, he said. Over the next year of mostly remote learning, Fochtman said he was less and less able to concentrate. He stopped participating and eventually stopped attending video classes. By the time his high school returned to in-person instruction, he had missed half his senior year and felt returning to class was “pointless.”
Two years later, Fochtman works as a cashier at Safeway and is finally earning credits again through an alternative program in his district. He needs another three credits to graduate, before he hopes to join a program to earn a welding associate degree.
Fochtman said schools need to do more to reengage students who disconnected during the last few years, beyond just calculating how far behind they are. “I never got [teachers] messaging me or trying to call my phone to get on schoolwork. Whenever I joined the Zooms, I didn’t participate, but none of my teachers ever said anything about it,” he said.
By contrast, Fochtman said the counselor assigned to him through the alternative program reaches out to find out what’s wrong whenever he misses an assignment or discussion. “One time, I was going through something with my dad—he has really bad lung issues—and I was basically ignoring my counselor for a week,” he said. “He just showed up at my house. He wanted to make sure everything was fine and that I’d be able to continue class.”
Both states and districts may need to provide broader and longer-term supports for high school students in the decade to come.
“I know people hope there is quick, rapid recovery” for graduation rates, Balfanz said, “but we know there have been increases in middle-grades failures, and that itself has been a predictor of dropping out. So maybe there’s enough time for the kids to recover, but on the other hand, [academic problems] can be additive. Schools have to prepare [because] … there could be quite a long tail to this.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Plunging Graduation Rates Signal Long Recovery