High school graduation season has come and gone and it seems an opportune time to step back and try to assess the whole matter of rapidly rising graduation rates. Now that high school graduation rates have topped 80 % in most Canadian provinces and some American states, it seems reasonable to ask whether rising levels of student “attainment” are actually the best way of measuring actual “achievement” levels. American education commentator John Merrow of PBS News Hour raised the same issue in April 2013 by posing the question this way – “Can an increase in National High School Graduation rates be trusted?”
Education authorities in Canada and the United States have recently been crowing a great deal about rising high school graduation rates. On June 25, 2013, the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC), chaired by Nova Scotia’s Ramona Jennex, claimed that the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013 showed that Canada was “one of the most well-educated countries in the world” on the basis of its high school and post-secondary education completion rates. A recent U.S. education report, “Building a Grad Nation,” released in February 2013, claimed that American graduation rates had risen to 80%, a gain of 6% since 2001, and were on target to reach 90% by 2020.
The 2013 OECD report delivered good news on “educational attainment” levels for many countries, including the United States. The Graduation Rates for upper secondary level (A 2.1) in 2011 among first time graduates were extraordinarily high, while the gender differences and ages at graduation varied considerably. Canada registered an 85% graduation rate ( 82% for Men, 88% for Women) and the average age at graduation was 19 years. For the United States, the national figures reported were 77% (74% for Men, 81% for Women), but the avg. age at graduation was only 17 years.
Rising graduation rates are being reported throughout the OECD countries. Japan and Finland led the pack of top nations tied with 96% graduation rates, but the avg Finn at graduation was 22 years of age. Canada’s rate of graduation, 84%, is just above the OECD average of 83% at 20 years of age. The United Kingdom and Australia, both with national student testing systems and so-called “league tables,” report graduation rates of 77% and 74% respectively. Young women are graduating at higher rates than men in virtually every country to the point where it is becoming a ‘sleeping’ public policy issue.
High school graduation rates are soaring and, in many countries, national dropout rates are declining. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Learning was one of the few agencies not simply content to report trends and inclined to look deeper. Back in December 2005, a CCL report on School Dropout Rates documented the dramatic decline of 7% in high school dropout rates from 1990-91 to 2oo4- 05, noting that Atlantic Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia led the way. The demands of the labour market for high school graduates was identified as the key factor, outweighing school retention initiatives.
Rising graduation rates and declining dropout rates are worth applauding, to a point. Over the 20 year period from 1990-91 to 2019-10, the number of Canadian young people ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma dropped from 340,000 (16.6%) to 191,000 (8.5%), again most dramatically evident in Atlantic Canada. THat is a positive development because, as John Richards of the CD Howe Institute pointed out in January 2011, Canadians without a diploma have an average employment rate of under 40%, whereas graduates average about 25% higher. In short, dropping out of high school leads to a life marked by bouts of unemployment and, in many cases, by poverty.
Provincial student attainment levels, however, only tell part of the story. Canada’s top performing province on international tests, Alberta, has among the lowest graduation rates and surprisingly high dropout rates. Alberta’s Education Department has long contended that the low graduation rate can be explained by Alberta’s more carefully audited reporting system and the number of young Albertans moving in and out of the oil rich province over the course of a school year.
The Maritime provinces have extraordinarily high graduation rates and low dropout counts , but their students perform mediocre at best on PISA and other standardized student assessments. In the case of Quebec, the country’s top performing province in Mathematics, a more rigorous curriculum, provincial examinations, and the high rural francophone dropout rate are factors. Anglo-Quebeckers have much higher completion rates, but those who leave the province to complete high school or switch to private schools are also identified as “dropouts” from the state system. One of the country’s best resourced school systems, Ontario, lagged behind in graduation rates until the late 1990s when Premier Dalton McGuinty finally adopted his “everyone will graduate” policy.
Boring down into the reasons for the rising Canadian graduation rates will likely lead to more plausible explanations. When we do, it will likely start by examining the factors identified by John Merrow in his recent PBS investigative report. To probe into the numbers will likely lead us to seriously examine the impact of slackening academic standards and the proliferation of “no fail” assessment policies. High school credit recovery courses have grown enormously as a way of moving students along and helping them to secure diplomas, but the phenomenon has not really been studied in Canada or the United States.
A major factor in the United States has been the closure of so-called failing high schools, known as “dropout factories.” That is not a factor here in Canada, where faltering schools remain open and essentially resort to “social promotion” policies. In Canada, we also need to assess the numbers of students leaving in Grades 10 and 11 to enter alternative schools or to be home-schooled and whether they are counted the same way in each province. Some lighthouse small school programs to support Aboriginal students, like St. Joe’s in Edmonton, may yet yield more positive answers.
It’s time to probe into rising graduation levels and to see whether they reflect real improvements in student achievement. What have we gained — and lost – by adopting “everyone graduates” policies in our high schools? Given the lack of national graduation standards, can the reported provincial graduation rates be validated and trusted? What has been the impact of credit recovery courses in schools across Canada? Are rising graduation levels accurately reflecting improvements in student learning and achievement or is the public being sold another bill of goods?