Opinion: Two federal states with surprisingly high graduation rates

In the second half of the 2010s, two states’ educational outcomes improved so much that a few days ago the Washington Post website presented this surprising headline: “Why Alabama and West Virginia Suddenly Have Stunning High School Graduation Rates.”

The headline is correct. An analysis of the 2018-19 school year (figures for younger years are unavailable due to the Covid-19 pandemic) shows that Alabama’s graduation rate was the highest in the country. Iowa came in 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 seven states with more than 90% of high school students earning a diploma.

Graduation rates in virtually every state improved over the decade. But few matched the gains in Alabama and West Virginia. In 2010–11, Alabama ranked 40th nationally with a 72% graduation rate, while West Virginia ranked 27th with 78%. Now they are first and third.

These are impressive improvements. Almost too impressive: Mississippi’s graduation rate has improved in recent years after the state allowed seniors multiple paths to a diploma in addition to passing exams in four subjects. Critics say the Mississippi change will allow more unprepared students to finish high school. Is that what Alabama and West Virginia are doing?

The Post cited 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 the degree seriously and made it a priority.

“Specifically, the two states focused on… an early warning system, tracking behavior, attendance, and grades in ninth grade, a critical point at which many future high school dropouts fall through the cracks in the transition from middle school to high school,” reported the Post.

The Johns Hopkins researcher said that while some children drop out of high school to get a job or because of pregnancy, the largest group are often students who fall behind in the ninth grade and never catch up.

The Post said Alabama and West Virginia hired outside providers to identify at-risk students. They shared the information with the teachers, who helped identify exactly what was keeping the kids out of class or causing them to perform poorly.

In the end, one researcher said the work simply involves “lots of problem solving and small efforts that help students stay on track.” But such rapid improvement should be grounds for skepticism and fact-checking.

Here’s a check: Census Bureau statistics rank both Alabama and West Virginia “comfortably near the top for the fastest growth in the proportion of young people graduating from high school over the past decade,” the Post reported.

The researchers also found no efforts by states to artificially increase graduation rates. However, the Post noted that Alabama dropped its final exam requirements in 2013, one of many states to do so, believing they harm lower-scoring students without offering an apparent benefit.

It turns out that states that kept the exam requirements had a slightly larger increase in graduation rates. However, one of the researchers noted a possible silver lining to lower graduation standards: students who stay in school gain proficiency in multiple subjects. That can only help them in the future.

The site included a chart of the growing pay gap between early childhood pay and US average pay. In 1975, dropouts earned 72% of the median wage. In 2020 they only earned 49%. This underscores the importance of a high school diploma, and Alabama and West Virginia may have some lessons for other states to copy.

— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise Journal