What’s Going on With Black High School Graduation Rates?

The pandemic has been tough on everybody, but particularly so on Black students. They’ve seen their parents, grandparents, and other caregivers disproportionately die from COVID-19, and they’ve witnessed the stress of family members — nursesAmazon warehouse workers, restaurant staff — working frontline jobs that can’t be done remotely. 

This put the onus on Black youths to do more around the house, whether it was caring for younger siblings, taking on domestic responsibilities, or even getting jobs of their own. Plus, on top of having to share internet access with siblings or not having access altogether, it was harder for Black students to join classes virtually.

“Particularly high school students usually take the brunt of taking care of their siblings. So they backed out and decided that I will perhaps do this later on, but right now, my focus is on younger siblings, my family,” says Dr. Lynn Jennings, senior director of national and state partnerships at The Education Trust

And now it’s high school graduation season. 

Across the country, millions of high school seniors are signing yearbooks, preparing their caps and gowns, and getting ready to embark on the next chapter of their lives — unless they’re one of these Black teenagers whose education got disrupted. It’s no wonder experts are worried that high school graduation rates for Black youths might drop.

Graduation Rates Were Down in 2021 After a Bump in 2020

The class of 2022 was in its sophomore year when COVID-19 sent students home to attend school through virtual classrooms. In many ways, this cohort will be able to provide better indications of what learning impacts the pandemic had on students. 

During the 2021/2022 school year, students were back to largely attending classes in-person, and prior academic requirements that had been relaxed were returning to pre-pandemic standards.

“This is a year we should pay a lot of attention to the high school graduation rates,” says Dr.  Jennings. “These aren’t the students who were necessarily in the thick of it, in terms of school closures and the disruption.”

Contrary to what might be the expected response to the start of a pandemic, national graduate rates were up in spring 2020 compared to 2019.

Brookings study, which analyzed 57% of the nation’s school population, found that graduation rates increased in 2020 before returning to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. The uptick in 2020 might have been caused by states waiving or loosening graduation requirements, according to a Chalkbeat report, which saw graduation rates dip in at least 20 states in 2021.

Though the rates are changing by 3 percentage points at most — which might seem small — Dr. Diarese George, the founder and executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, says we need to remember a single percentage point change can equate to thousands of students who didn’t earn their high school diploma.

“It’s a big deal,” George says. Though he’s seeing enrollment numbers constantly going up in Tennessee, “that dip of 1,000 students is still significant.”

“Primary research is showing that definitely, during that time — when we were in the thick of the pandemic — the graduation requirements were relaxed,” Jennings says. States reduced their standards, relaxing credit requirements, graduation exam requirements, and even attendance. “We can expect, as you’re going through it, that teachers were probably a little bit more relaxed in terms of their expectations of high school students during that time, and particularly graduates, given what they were going through.”

Following the start of citywide stay-at-home orders and remote learning in March 2020, districts almost uniformly waived graduation requirements and told students that if they were on track to graduate in March, were passing their classes, and had enough credits, they were able to graduate.

“That benefited a few students in a positive way,” says Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

 “Unfortunately, in 2021, when we now had the full year of the pandemic, plus the first part of that year before, it was a different situation.”

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