In the second half of the 2010s, education results in two states improved to the point that The Washington Post website presented this surprising headline a few days ago: “Why Alabama and West Virginia suddenly have amazing high school graduation rates.”
The headline is correct. An analysis of the 2018-19 school year (figures in more recent years are not available because of the covid-19 pandemic) finds that Alabama’s graduation rate was the highest in the nation. Iowa ranked second after being No. 1 for the rest of the 2010s, and West Virginia was third.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the three states were among only seven where more than 90% of high school students were receiving a diploma.
Virtually every state’s graduation rate improved during the decade. But few came close to the gains in Alabama and West Virginia. In the 2010-11 year, Alabama ranked 40th nationally with a 72% graduation rate, while West Virginia was 27th at 78%. Now they’re first and third.
Those are impressive improvements. Almost too impressive: Mississippi’s graduation rate has improved in recent years after the state gave seniors multiple paths to a diploma other than passing exams in four subjects. Critics say Mississippi’s change allows more unprepared students to finish high school. Is that what Alabama and West Virginia are doing?
The Post quoted researchers at Tulane University and Johns Hopkins University who said the two states were early, enthusiastic and persistent adopters of graduation-rate targeting. Alabama and West Virginia, they said, took graduation seriously and made it a priority.
“In particular, the two states focused on ... an early warning system, tracking behavior, attendance and grades in the ninth grade, a critical point at which many future dropouts fall through the cracks in the transition from middle school to high school,” the Post reported.
The Johns Hopkins researcher said that while some kids quit high school to get a job or because of pregnancy, the largest group often is students who fall behind in ninth grade and never catch up.
The Post said Alabama and West Virginia hired outside vendors to identify at-risk students. They shared the information with teachers, who helped figure out exactly what was keeping the kids out of class or causing poor performance.
In the end, one researcher said the work simply involved “lots of problem-solving and small efforts that help students stay on track.” But such rapid improvement should be cause for skepticism and fact-checking.
Here’s one check: Census Bureau statistics rank both Alabama and West Virginia “comfortably near the top for fastest growth in the share of young people with high school diplomas over the past decade,” the Post reported.
Also, the researchers found no efforts by the states to artifically inflate graduation rates. However, the Post noted that in 2013, Alabama dropped its graduation exam requirement, one of many states to do so in the belief that they hurt lower-scoring students without providing an obvious benefit.
It turns out that states that kept the exam requirement had a slightly larger increase in graduation rates. But one of the researchers noted a possible silver lining to lower graduation standards: Students who stay in school will gain knowledge in multiple subjects. That can only help them in the future.
The website included a chart of the growing wage gap between dropout pay and U.S. median pay. In 1975, dropouts earned 72% of the median wage. In 2020, they earned only 49%. This underscores the importance of a high school diploma, and Alabama and West Virginia may have some lessons that other states can copy.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal