Staff Editorial: Rising high school graduation rates are cause for optimism

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This chart from D.C. Public Schools shows the system's steadily increasing four-year graduation rate. Charter schools have also seen progress since 2011. (image courtesy of D.C. government)

Seven years ago, barely half the high school students receiving a public education in the District were graduating within four years. According to data released last week from the 2016-17 school year, those numbers have steadily improved to nearly three in four students — 72.4 percent instead of 58.6 percent, with similar performance between the D.C. Public Schools system and the city’s public charter schools.

It’s hard to be entirely sure of the reason for the improvement, though officials have pointed to initiatives such as ninth-grade academies and additional guidance counseling. But a 14-point bump in four-year graduation rates — particularly when it comes as a steady gain of a few points each year — is excellent news, as long as there’s no evidence of a sudden drop in standards. Coming in conjunction with steadily improving performance on standardized tests, we have some optimism that we’re seeing real progress rather than relaxed graduation requirements.

At D.C. Public Schools, which broke the results down by racial demographics, black and Latino students surpassed a graduation rate of 70 percent — just below the system average of 73 percent. While we’d like to see further progress, this achievement gap is not as wide as those we’ve seen in test scores.

We’re also optimistic about the “Honors for All” initiative at Wilson High School, which exposes all students to advanced material. Research has suggested that many students can thrive in a challenging environment but that educators too often place them in easier courses — in part due to unfair assumptions about students of color. Widely recommended at Wilson in advance of its implementation, Honors for All has great potential. We hope to see more about its effectiveness.