ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to dig into a big headline from the Department of Education now. The high school graduation rate is at its highest point ever. The latest numbers show that 82 percent of students earn their diploma in the 2013-2014 school year. On the surface, that sounds impressive, but NPR's Ed team led an investigation with 14 member stations around the country this year. That investigation revealed that states and districts are pursuing a wide variety of strategies to get that rate up, both good and not so good. For more details, we turn now to Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. And Anya, in the past decade, graduation rates have gone up about 10 percentage points nationwide. Does that reflect a win for public policy?
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, in some ways, yes. For example, the nation's schools have gotten better at identifying early warning signs of dropping out, and they're using data and analytics to look at things like attendance and behavior and course performance - the ABCs. In some places, we found that the states are assigning early interventions like graduation coaches who mentor and nudge students to get into school. And partly as a result of No Child Left Behind, districts around the country have closed a lot of schools where dropout rates were 40 percent or more, and that has taken a bite out of the dropout rates as well.
SIEGEL: So where in the study did you find the bad news in that case?
KAMENETZ: Well, what has experts concerned across the country is that even as the grad rate has been trending up, that national test scores aren't necessarily up, and a large number of graduates in many districts need remediation when they get to college. And of course, graduation rates in colleges are still quite low. And so what that tells us is that some schools may have just been lowering the bar, letting students who might have otherwise not have made it to graduation day find alternative paths where the expectations might not be quite as high.
SIEGEL: What are some of the least-savory strategies that you found out about school districts boosting the graduation rate?
KAMENETZ: Well, so in addition to sort of, you know, getting easier paths to graduation, some schools or states might report that a student has transferred or working toward a GED or even that they moved out of country. And of this allows schools to basically take students out of their denominator and therefore improve their overall rate. And in fact, in response, partly, to our investigation and some of the questions raised by WBEZ, the city of Chicago actually revised its graduation rate downward considerably over the past five years.
SIEGEL: Well, it seemed to me that kids who finished high school in 2014 would have been a cohort that had grown up with No Child Left Behind. This would have been a group of students very accustomed to being tested and being held to standards.
KAMENETZ: Well - and I think that we see the impact of accountability policies both for good and for bad inside this number. You know, the pressure to raise a graduation rate is leading some schools in some places to really redouble their efforts and focus on, you know, minority students. We do see the achievement gap narrowing in this graduation rate.
On the other hand, the pressure to make those numbers has led some districts in some places to, quote, unquote, "juke the stats." And so there really are sort of both positive and perverse incentives in this really strong concentration on this one number.
SIEGEL: That's Anya Kamenetz with the NPR Ed team. Anya, thanks.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Robert.
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