Graduation Rate Study a Mixed Bag

Wisconsin is a national leader when it comes to high school graduation rates – but also has one of the worst racial disparities in those rates as well, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education release.  The DOE’s latest findings regarding dropouts in America highlight an improvement of the overall graduation rate in Wisconsin, but also an achievement gap between African American and Caucasian students that ranks as the second largest disparity in the country.   

The state graduated 89.6% of its incoming freshman from 2003-2004 in four years, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data. The NCES’s methods are thought to be amongst the most reliable for counting high school dropouts since they take a longitudinal view of a student’s entire secondary career, as well as a year-by-year breakout of when pupils are leaving school. This rate far outstripped the national Average Freshman Graduation Rate (74.9%) and led a top five effort that also included Vermont (89.3), Iowa (86.4), Minnesota (86.4), and New Jersey (84.6).  

The rise caps a six-year positive trend that saw Wisconsin’s average increase by nearly four points –  showing gains in each year since 2002-2003 – while the national average only rose by a single point.    

However, it is not all positive news when it comes to Wisconsin’s placement in the latest NCES data. Though African American students in the state are graduating at a slightly higher rate than the national average, they are still over 30 percent less likely to earn their diplomas than their Caucasian counterparts. Just 63.1% of black students graduated from high school in 2008, while 94% of white students were able to accomplish the same.   

Though recent trends show the graduation rate amongst black students improving from 56% in 2006 to the current figure of 63.1%, there is still a long way to go. In 2008, African American students made up 32.4% of the state’s dropouts for the year, but just 7.4% of Wisconsin’s high school graduates. Hispanic students, in comparison, graduated at a 75% clip, exceeding the national average in their grouping (63.5%), but still produced a nearly 20% deficit in comparison to the state’s Caucasian population.   

The backbone of the NCES’s study is one of cautious optimism. Though at face value Wisconsin’s status as the national leader in graduation rates is noteworthy, there is still much work to be done. This work highlights the work being done in the classroom to push children to earn their diplomas, but it also digs up the persistent problem of the state’s achievement gap.  

It is also important to note that this data doesn’t tell us what happens to these students after graduation or make any statement on the state’s graduation requirements –  and whether these students are attending college or need focused remedial classes to function in a higher education setting. Studies completed by the University of Wisconsin detailing the need for remediation and by the Fordham Institute examining the lack of rigor in yearly progress amongst Wisconsin’s schools suggest that the state’s high graduation rate may not be as much of a success as it appears to be. 

As the MacIver Institute reported last year, residents that failed to graduate still cost the state billions of dollars thanks to decrease earnings, increased dependence on public health care programs, and a higher likelihood of being incarcerated. A study by Emily House reported that even with the state’s relatively small dropout population, over $100 million is lost each year in tax revenue. When compounded with the additional public support that these residents require, high school dropouts cost taxpayers over $380 million in 2007 alone. 

So, Wisconsinites cannot rest be satisfied with the graduation rates here–the achievement gap in the state still sits a full 10 points higher than the national average when it comes to graduation, and though recent improvements have fit in line with American trends, it still has not been enough.

By Christian D’Andrea
The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy