Rising Graduation Rates Probably Reflect Improved Achievement

Bryan Caplan asks whether increases in the graduation rate are really good news:

In the pure human capital model, rising graduation rates are good if they reflect increased learning.  But they are not good if they reflect lower standards.  For all its faults, the human capital model is no rationale for social promotion – handing out diplomas based on age rather than performance.

I think this is a bit of an oversimplification. It’s not implausible that the marginal low-achieving student would be better off with a diploma than failing to earn one, and his improved life prospects could very well be good news for the rest of us.

Still, it’s a reasonable question and it’s possible that the increased learning & social promotion explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Importantly, though, we have some evidence of the achievement of high school students from the NAEP long-term trend assessment. Those tests indicate that overall scores in math and reading have held steady (at least through 2008).

If more low-achieving students were persisting through high school only because of lower standards, shouldn’t that show up as lower NAEP scores among 17-year-olds?

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5 Comments

  1. Rebecca Brown
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 4:07 PM | Permalink

    Let’s pretend that rising graduation rates DO reflect lower standards, which Caplan believes is a bad thing. By that logic, decreasing graduation rates by raising standards would be EVEN BETTER. If the point of a diploma is to distinguish smarties from dummies, rather than to set an attainable goal young people can work toward and feel proud of, why not make them even more exclusive?

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 7:07 PM | Permalink

      You know, I don’t know what signalling folks think about that. My guess is that they’d look at the large wage premia for HS and (especially) college graduation and think the market seems to really value the signals so maybe it’s best not to change them too much. On their account (I think) we’ve already got a range of standards to signal a range of levels of ability – HS, AA, BA, graduate school – so shifting any particular standard may not be necessary.

      But I’m just guessing.

  2. Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:56 PM | Permalink

    Wasn’t the big boost in high graduation rates after 2008 when jobs collapsed?

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 9:40 PM | Permalink

      Definitely there was a big jump after 2008, but even from 1999-2008 the averaged freshman graduation rate – freshmen graduating in 4 years – went from 71.7% to 74.9%. The “event dropout rate” – the proportion of 15-24-year-olds who dropped out of grades 10-12 each year – fell from 5% to 3.5% during the same time.

      It does remain to be seen what will happen to NAEP scores post-economic collapse, but the evidence from the previous decade suggests that increasing achievement was at least part of the picture.

  3. Posted May 30, 2013 at 3:29 AM | Permalink

    The idea that the kids who are being pushed through with credit recovery and alternative high school and coaxed into graduating represents improved achievement is a notion that could only be pushed who hasn’t seen the process in action.

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