Graduation rate for D.C. public schools drops 3.5 percent

In the post just below this one, John contends, all too plausibly, that the biggest threat to America’s future is our unbelievably bad public school system. Low graduation rates are not the biggest problem with our public schools, nor are they the most telling symptom of decline. They are, however, one symptom and a legitimate concern.

In Washington, D.C., the graduation rate for the traditional public high schools dropped 3.5 percentage points in 2019. This was the second straight year of decline.

In 2017, the school system posted a record high rate of 73 percent. In 2019, the rate was 65.1.

There’s an explanation for the decline. Unfortunately, it is even more depressing than the decline itself.

In 2017, it became known that public schools were graduating students who did not meet the requirements for graduation. A citywide investigation found that 1 in 3 graduates that year received a diploma despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes.

The decline in graduation rates the following two years occurred because the system tried to crack down on undeserved graduation. In other words, D.C. public schools didn’t really become worse at producing minimally qualified graduates. They were always this bad at it!

The good news is that graduation rates from charter schools in D.C. are considerably higher than those from traditional public schools, and they are rising. In 2019, charter schools graduated 76.4 percent of their seniors, a four percentage point increase from 2018.

Critics of charter schools sometimes point out that charter school “dropouts” return to traditional public schools and are counted against the graduations rates of these schools. However, in the case of the D.C. charter school where one of my daughters worked, data showed that these students (the dropouts) graduated from their traditional public schools at higher rates than other students at the same schools. Thus, at least with this particular charter school, the benefits of attendance accrued even to students who quit the school.

Higher graduations are just one indicator of the superiority of charter schools to traditional public schools. Higher test scores are another. College attendance and graduation rates are a third.

Charter schools won’t save American education. However, they are a brake against the decline. And they do save some students.