Research

High School Graduation Rates through Two Decades of District Change: The Influence of Policies, Data Records, and Demographic Shifts

June, 2016
Authors: 
Elaine M. Allensworth, Kaleen Healey, Julia A. Gwynne, and René Crespin

Read the Executive Summary.


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Sixteen years ago, high school students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were almost as likely to drop out as they were to graduate; today they are three times as likely to graduate as drop out. What is driving this remarkable increase? A new report from the UChicago Consortium on School Research addresses the extent to which various factors could account for the changes in graduation rates, including changes in student performance and student demographics, increasing numbers of charter and selective enrollment high schools that serve Chicago students, and changes in school practices around improving attendance and course performance.

The study uses age cohorts – following students from freshman year in CPS until they turn 19. This allows the cohorts to be comparable over time, regardless of changes in grade promotion criteria. It finds graduation rates have increased by 22 percentage points over the last 16 years, from 52.4 percent among students who turned 19 in 1998, to 74.8 percent in 2014, with the most rapid increase occurring in the last six years. Freshman on-track rates have also risen during the same period, from 48 percent among students who were 19 years old in 1998 to 81 percent for students who will turn 19 in 2017, suggesting graduation rates will continue to rise. 

While changes in student demographics account for some of the increase in graduation rates, improvements in student performance in high school —compared to similar students who started high school in the past—accounts for most of the change; students are passing more classes and earning more credits in ninth grade. Not only are more students graduating, but they are leaving high school with higher achievement than graduates in prior years.

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