Seattle Schools’ graduation rates are on the upswing

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Between 2019 and 2022, the number of Seattle Public Schools students graduating on time increased dramatically among students of color, multilingual learners and students receiving special education services.

Although it’s a notable improvement, it’s difficult to assess whether the spike in graduation rates was the result of academic improvement or if it can be attributed to graduation requirement changes during the pandemic.

Still, there are some signs in the newly released data that Seattle’s improving numbers are meaningful.

Many school districts across the nation relaxed graduation requirements or even passed kids automatically starting in 2020 because of COVID-19 education disruptions. That resulted in an increase in graduation rates nationwide.

“The pandemic certainly had us err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt in that spring of 2020,” said Caleb Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness at Seattle Public Schools. That decision “absolutely had an effect” on graduation rates, he said.

No Seattle students received failing grades in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. And all Washington students could obtain waivers that allowed them to graduate without fulfilling some credits. The percentage of students who graduated because of pandemic exceptions is unknown, but “it is one significant reason why we had an increase in 2020,” Perkins said.

The state’s Board of Education is still considering whether to extend waivers for the current school year and for 2023-24.

The district’s rate generally follows state trends, and shows that the graduation rate across Seattle Public Schools has been increasing since at least 2019. There has been about a 6 percentage-point increase in overall graduation rates, bringing 2021 and 2022 graduation rates to about 86%. The percentages reflect students who graduated in four years or less. 

The statewide graduation rate in 2021 was 82.5%, about half a percentage point less than in 2020. But state graduation rates are still up from pre-pandemic years, when it was nearly 81% in 2019 and 2018.

The national high school graduation rate was 86% in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The data also shows the number of Seattle students who graduated after completing at least one advanced course has spiked since 2019, with double-digit increases for students of color, multilingual learners and students with individualized education programs. That’s a positive sign, and it seems unrelated to the pandemic.

“We know that on-time graduation isn’t enough — that’s why our top-line measure … is also completing advanced coursework,” Perkins said. Research shows that when students complete at least one advanced course, they are more likely to finish college.

Another positive indicator: Black students showed an almost 10 percentage-point increase in graduation rates since 2019 — a sign that the programs and funds used to target better outcomes among Black male students could be working. In 2019, Seattle Schools launched a districtwide initiative to combat racism and make the education system work for students of color, specifically Black male students. 

Overall, high school graduation rates in 2020 increased in school districts nationwide and then leveled off in 2021, according to a study of data compiled in 25 states by The Brown Center Chalkboard, a weekly series of reports and analyses about education research and policies.

Every state reduced graduation standards, which is likely the reason for the uptick, the research found. States also relaxed credit, attendance and graduation testing requirements. 

The national study also found that graduation rates increased for English learners, Black students and students with disabilities — which aligns with SPS data. 

The most significant percentage jump among all Seattle graduates was between the years 2019 and 2020 — about 4 percentage points. In the last two years, graduation rates were more stable, only increasing by about 2 percentage points. 

It is notable that even in 2022 — when teachers were able to give students failing grades again — graduation rates continued to increase, Perkins said. “It’s not hugely dramatic higher numbers but still making steady progress.” 

Although graduation rates are up, the same can’t be said about standardized test scores. During the pandemic, students nationwide and in Seattle lost more than half a school year of learning in math, according to a recent analysis.

Dramatic increases

Multilingual learners had the largest jump in graduation rates from 2021 to 2022 — nearly 6 percentage points. All other student groups had about a 3 percentage-point increase or lower. 

Multilingual learners, students of color, students with IEPs and Black male students also saw the most significant graduation increases between 2019 and 2020. Black male students had the highest uptick in graduates between those years, nearly 7 percentage points, bringing their on-time graduation rate to 77.6%. Students of color and students with IEPs jumped about 6 percentage points.

The district has focused on improving academic outcomes for students they refer to as “furthest from educational justice,” which are often students of color, multilingual learners or students with IEPs. The student groups that had the most dramatic upticks in graduation rates reflect the goals of the district. 

Students who have IEPs had the highest graduation increases — from 2019 to 2022, graduation rates jumped nearly 14 percentage points, from 55% to nearly 69%. Graduation rates among multilingual learners and students of color were right behind those with IEPs. 

The graduation rate increase for African American male students could be related to an emphasis on that group’s outcomes after the disparity in test scores between Black and white students in the district gained national attention. SPS officials believe that once the education system starts working for Black male students, it’ll work for all students.

The push for advanced courses

The percentage of Black male students and students of color who graduated in four years and passed at least one advanced class has gone up about 14 percentage points since 2019. Multilingual learners taking at least one advanced course went up by about 19 percentage points and nearly 16 percentage points for students with IEPs.

Those plans are documents that lay out the specific needs of individual students. Often, students with IEPs are receiving special education services. By law, district officials must evaluate students with IEPs yearly and update them if needed.

New advanced courses and changes to the International Baccalaureate program were both factors that contributed to the spikes. International Baccalaureate is a rigorous program that offers college credit to students who pass the exams, and is offered at three high schools: Rainier Beach, Chief Sealth and Ingraham.

The district also offers College in the High School, which allows students to graduate with college credit, and it added a new business math class that caused a dramatic spike in students taking advanced math, Perkins said. 

Since 2019, the number of students who graduated having passed an advanced math course with at least a C+ went up about 10 percentage points since 2019 for all graduates. African American male students had the highest increase, about 22 percentage points, followed by multilingual learners, about 21 percentage points. 

There have been efforts by individual schools to increase the accessibility of advanced courses while also keeping them academically rigorous, Perkins said. 

“Often it’s not that the class is too hard or it’s not that students aren’t interested in the class,” Perkins said. “It’s a combination of students assuming those classes are not for them or they don’t feel safe and welcome, or staff making assumptions about what prerequisites need to be there that aren’t in fact necessary.”

At Chief Sealth High School, IB classes have become more accessible, said Allison Hays, IB coordinator at the school. For example, in 2015, all juniors and seniors were automatically placed in IB English classes. 

And in 2019, Chief Sealth did away with the standard-level curriculum in IB English courses and moved to a higher-level curriculum, Hays said. Also that year, all juniors were placed in IB math classes.

This school year, some IB English classes are being co-taught by an IB teacher and a special education teacher, Hays said. The school will next do this in math classes, she said. There is also a multilingual teacher who is teaching an IB math course, she said.

Such courses emphasize critical thinking, asking students to do more analysis and look at concepts from multiple perspectives, which can help students be more successful in college and careers, Hays said. 

Historically in American schools, Hays said, some educators have looked at courses as either being advanced or not advanced — but IB wasn’t designed like that. However, many American schools are moving away from that model and mindset, including Seattle, she said.

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