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High school graduation rates are up, but is that the system is being rigged or real progress on the ground?

This spring saw some rare good news on the U.S. education scene when the federal government announced high school graduation rates jumped to 81 percent in 2012, up from 73 percent in 2006.

"America's students have achieved another record-setting milestone," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "Our high school graduation rate is now at an all-time high," tweeted President Barack Obama.

High school graduation is vital marker, experts agree. Research has repeatedly found graduation has sweeping implications for lifetime earnings, health, addictions, criminal behavior and dependency on government support. A significant upturn in graduation rates would have huge social implications.

But are these touted gains real?

A real shift

One indication graduation gains are real, said Richard Murnane, an education economist at Harvard, is the eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which he says have substantially improved since 1995, especially for African-Americans and Latinos.

Those eighth-grade test scores have long been one of the best predictors of high school graduation, so improvement there says something: "The NAEP scores do tell us that something real is happening," Murnane said.

Murnane authored a 2013 journal article unpacking graduation rate trends, finding the improvements are real but that there is not enough data to say what factors are to thank.

"The evidence on high school reforms that are effective in increasing graduation rates for economically disadvantaged students is much too thin to provide anything like a set of blueprints for improving secondary school education," he wrote.

Murnane points to some outside factors he thinks pushed graduation rates up, aside from anything that might have been done in schools. First, there as a sharp decline in teen pregnancy, and second, a drop youth criminality that began in 1995. Both of these allowed more children to stay in school. He also points to increased spending on pre-K programs, which, he says, have outsized effects down the road.

Chicago blues

Not everyone agrees these improvements should be taken at face value. A recent high-profile series by National Public Radio and 14 of its member stations says the new graduation rate numbers "should be taken with a big grain of salt."

NPR identified three pathways to higher graduation rates: "(1) Stepping in early to keep kids on track; (2) Lowering the bar by offering alternate and easier routes when students falter; and (3) Gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them."

While the series did address some success stories, it also clearly suggested that in some cities, including Chicago, bookkeeping games have masked the fact that little real progress has been made.

This struck a nerve for Elaine Allensworth, managing director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute. She argues the report downplayed real gains shown by Chicago's early intervention strategies.

Instead of focusing on what is working in Chicago, Allensworth said, NPR focused on ambiguous details. NPR reporters noted that some students at risk of not graduating were falsely listed as having moved or switched to home school. But even taken at face value, Allensworth counters, those errors would have little impact on the whole. And, she adds, whatever impact they do have is more than balanced by quirks in the bookkeeping system resulting in many students who actually have moved being wrongly listed as dropouts.

"Even if you counted all transfer students as nongraduates," Allensworth said, "the trends are still up."

"NPR could have focused on programs that have been incredibly effective and changed thousands of lives," Allensworth said. "Instead, they cast doubt on all the progress by focusing on obscure data and coding questions."

NPR did, however, at least briefly cite Allensworth's influential work in the role of "on-track" monitoring, that allows schools to track children from eighth grade or even earlier, arranging interventions for those showing early crisis signs. These interventions, Allensworth argues, more than anything, are producing results in Chicago.

New challenges

Data on high school graduation rates has improved in recent years, said John Q. Easton. Now a senior fellow at the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, Easton spent five years as the director of the Institute of Education Sciences for the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration.

Much of this data improvement is due to federal pressure on states and localities to use the standardized measures and use them more consistently. Previously, data was collected haphazardly. Starting with the 2010-11 school year, the new Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate came on-line for the first time.

But with the improvement of data, Easton notes, new challenges arise. Today, as the need for postsecondary education rapidly becomes a requirement, not an option. A high school diploma is less of an economic boost today than it was in the past.

"Today, people recognize that a high school degree is necessary but not sufficient," Easton said. Now we need better data on the transitions from high school to the next level, and not just high school alone, he said.

"The life outcomes are what we really want to know," Easton said. "We want to know whether these kids get jobs, lead stable lives, avoid risky behaviors and have good health. But we do know that high school graduation is a good predictor for these outcomes."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com