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American High School Graduation Rates Reach All-Time High


President Obama had a number on his mind today, and it has nothing to do with politics or the election. Here he is this morning at a high school in the nation's capital.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We recently learned that America's high school graduation rate went up to 83 percent, which is the highest on record. That's good news.


MCEVERS: And it gets better. All groups saw improvement, including students from low-income families and those learning English as a second language. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team reports on the reasons behind this good news and why it's not all good.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Speaking at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Obama told the students that earning a high school diploma matters more now than ever because of the global economy.


OBAMA: When I took office almost eight years ago, we knew that our education system was falling short when it came to preparing young people like you for that reality.

TURNER: So Obama says his administration increased access to Head Start, encouraged states to improve schools with high dropout rates and helped districts build better systems to reach struggling students before they drop out. But today's news also comes with some big caveats.

TURNER: For many students, a high school diploma is not a passport to opportunity. It's a ticket to nowhere still.

TURNER: Michael Cohen is president of Achieve, a national nonprofit that's long advocated for higher standards in graduation requirements.

MICHAEL COHEN: You don't know how many students who were in that graduation rate actually completed by a rigorous course of study. We're not transparent about that. We're concealing a problem.

TURNER: One example, Cohen says - roughly half of states now offer multiple diplomas. Some are rigorous, but some aren't. Also in many places, he says the high school graduation exam is a really low bar. Some states have dropped it altogether. Scores on the test known as the Nation's Report Card suggest Cohen's concerns are well-founded. Last year, high school seniors scored on average lower in reading than they did in 1992.

When the NPR Ed team with member stations investigated state graduation rates, they found widespread evidence of low expectations, including students allowed to make up credits by doing less rigorous coursework in less time on the computer. And in Chicago, thousands of dropouts were being mislabeled, never counting against the city's graduation rate.

And just last month, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher excoriated his state for watered down graduation standards that he says have already resulted...


THOMAS MOUKAWSHER: In unready children being sent to high school, handed degrees and left if they can scrape together the money to buy basic skills at a community college.

TURNER: Earlier today, President Obama warned his student audience that they should all be thinking about college.


OBAMA: A high school education these days is not enough.

TURNER: And he's right in more ways than one. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.