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Steve Contorno
By Steve Contorno March 26, 2014

Barack Obama says high schoolers are graduating at an all-time high

During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama warned Congress that the American education system was putting millions of students at a disadvantage in the 21st century job market.

"Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school."

But recently, a politician gave a speech in Orlando claiming the school system was on a roll.

"Our high school graduation rate is the highest on record. Absolutely," the politician said. "More young people are earning college degrees than ever before."

So who had the nerve to test the president’s assessment of the system?

The correct answer: Barack Obama.

Yup, just three years after Obama used the high school graduation rate as a call to action, he’s now using it to proclaim the achievements of his administration.

We gave Obama a Mostly True in 2011 when he claimed up to 25 percent of Americans drop out of high school. So how does his current statement, that the graduation rate is at a record high, stack up?

Counting diplomas

Tracking the number of Americans earning a high school diploma seems like a simple task, but it has proven to be a tough stat to track.

The U.S. Education Department utilizes a stat called the Average Freshman Graduation Rate. It’s an estimate of the number of high school students who graduate on time in four years, and it’s used by looking at enrollment data from year to year.

States and local school districts for years used various methods to determine the percentage of students who graduate high school. Maine in 2007 and 2008, for example, counted students who graduated from private schools with publicly funded tuition in their state tallies. The statistic mostly measures public school students, another major hole in the national data.

As a result, national figures had flaws and year-to-year comparisons were difficult because so many schools count degrees differently.

"It does seem like dropout rates should be easily and unambiguously measured, but for a million reasons they’re not," said David Bills, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Education.

"Until recently many schools have been pretty casual about record keeping," he said. "At what point is a kid a dropout? When he doesn’t show up for a month? A semester? What if he moves to a different city and enrolls there and nobody tells the original school? Or a kid drops out at 15 and gets a GED at 19? All of these little things can turn out to be pretty significant."

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More recently, the federal government has worked with states to get everyone on the same page with a new more vigorous statistic, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, that will create a uniform method for tracking high school graduation rates in public school students moving forward.

"Basically the feds have thrown their hands up in the air and said, ‘Let’s get it right from here on, and not worry about stuff in the past that we can’t fix,’ " Bills said.

What the numbers say

Nevertheless, when we talked to experts, they still thought graduation rates were improving and they pointed to a number of markers.

The White House sent us toward numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics at the Education Department, which put the graduation rate at 81 percent in 2011-12. The previous high was in 1969-70, when the graduation rate was 78.7 percent.

Again, comparing stats collected in 2012 versus 1970 isn’t apples to apples, but it does show trend lines, said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Education.

"These are really just estimates, but you can get an accurate description of what’s going on," Hull said. "It might not be 80 percent are graduating, but we know the trend is definitely going up, and it’s a lot more than in the 1990s."

Other methods for calculating graduation rates exist, and not all of them say recent years are the highest on record.

Editorial Projects in Education, publishers of Education Week, put the graduation rate at 74.7 percent in 2009-10.

"That’s pretty good, by historical benchmarks and the rate has been moving up in recent years," said Christopher Swanson, vice president of research and development.

But at 77.1 percent, 1969 remains the watermark in their calculations, he said.

Despite differences in methodology and problems collecting consistent data, there is general agreement that high school diplomas are on the rise.

"All of (the measurements) show the same general trend toward a higher proportion of kids finishing high school," Bills said.

Our ruling

Obama said, "Our high school graduation rate is the highest on record." On paper, it’s an accurate claim using the federal government's metric, but that only accounts for public school students and states and local school districts collect the data differently, creating inconsistencies. We also found another trusted model that puts the high point at 1969.

Still, the general sense in the education industry is that rates are on the rise and considerably higher than 20 or even 10 years ago.

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.

Correction, April 9, 2014: The initial version of this story incorrectly stated that the Education Department had changed how it calculated the Average Freshman Graduation Rate, citing a March 2013 press release. However, that release was referencing a different statistic, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, which Obama was not referencing in his speech. The story has been adjusted to reflect this correction. This does not change our rating of Half True.

Our Sources

President Obama speech in Orlando, March 20, 2014

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama in State of the Union says up to a quarter of U.S. high schoolers drop out," Jan. 25, 2011

Email interview with Matt Lehrich, spokesman for the White House, March 25, 2014

Email interview with David Bills, professor at the University of Iowa College of Education, March 24, 2014

Email interview with Christopher Swanson, vice president of research and development at Editorial Projects in Education, March 24, 2014

Homeroom: Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education, "High School Graduation Rate at Highest Level in Three Decades," January 2013

U.S. Department of Education, "Education Department Releases New School-Level Graduation Rate Data to Better Inform Parents, District Leaders," March 5, 2013

National Center for Education Statistics, "Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009–10," January 2013

Center for Public Education, "High school graduation rate at an all-time high," Feb. 20, 2014

National Center for Education Statistics, "Annual diploma counts and the Averaged Freshmen Graduation Rate (AFGR) in the United States by race/ethnicity: School years 2007‑08 through 2011‑12," accessed March 25, 2014

National Center for Education Statistics, "Public High School Graduation Rates," updated May 2013

National Center for Education Statistics, "High school graduates, by sex and control of school: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2021-22," accessed March 25, 2014

National Center for Education Statistics, "Digest of Education Statistics 2011," June 2012

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