The pandemic was always going to affect Kansas’ plan to eventually graduate 95% of its high school students, but education leaders are starting to get the first widespread picture of exactly how COVID has affected high schoolers’ academic careers.
A year after reaching a record 88.3%, Kansas’ four-year graduation rate dipped to 88.1% for the graduating class of 2021, state data shows.
While the rate itself still reflects a second-best high for Kansas, the latest batch of data does represent a hurdle that could continue as the state tries to reach its 95% goal, said education commissioner Randy Watson.
“It doesn’t surprise me that, because of COVID and the interruptions of a pandemic, we did drop slightly,” he said. “It wasn’t significant enough to think that we can’t rebound from it, but we’re going to watch it closely.”
He said it’s still too early to determine if lower graduation rates could become a longer-term trend, especially since the pandemic is still taking its toll on Kansas school operations.
“We have to acknowledge that in the month of January 2022, we’re still full fledge in this pandemic,” Watson said. “We had one week in the middle of January that 27 school districts closed because they didn’t have enough staff or student caseload was so high with COVID.”
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Topeka-area school districts near statewide goal
In Shawnee County, Topeka Unified School District 501 was the lone district to see a lower graduation rate — 80.2% in 2021 compared to 81.7% in 2020.
Topeka USD 501, like other large, urban districts in Kansas, had been working to improve relatively lower graduation rates compared to their suburban counterparts before COVID-19 disrupted school operations.
Those larger districts were also more likely to have remained in remote learning before the Kansas Legislature restricted the learning mode.
Other districts in Shawnee County — Seaman USD 345, Auburn-Washburn USD 437 and Shawnee Heights USD 450 — all improved by a few percentage points and are nearing the state goal of 95%.
At 96.4% in 2021, Silver Lake USD 372 had a fourth consecutive year of having surpassed the state goal.
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Fewer Kansas high school graduates going onto college
For now, Watson says he isn’t as concerned with graduation rates as he is with Kansas high schools’ post-secondary success and effectiveness rates.
Those rates — which quantify how many Kansas high school graduates and non-graduates continue on to college, trade school, military or other post-secondary training programs — are measured two summers after graduation.
The state education department’s latest reports, for the senior class of 2019, show 56% of graduates were enrolled in post-secondary training, compared to 48% for all students regardless of if they graduated.
Both are improvements of 4% from four years prior, in working toward eventual goals of 70-75%.
But preliminary signs show the number of Kansas graduates attending post-high school education and training “dropped significantly during the pandemic years,” Watson said, although specific data on the class of 2020 won’t be available until July.
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With increasingly fewer jobs requiring just a high school diploma, Kansas’ economic outlook relies on improving post-secondary success, he said.
To that end, the Kansas State Department of Education has been working with its higher education counterparts in the Kansas Board of Regents to help more high school students learn how to take the ACT or apply for financial aid and reach some form of higher education.
“We’re talking about tech schools, because we need HVAC and auto mechanics, but we also desperately need teachers and principals, as well as engineers and — certainly right now — nurses and respiratory therapists,” Watson said.
Task force could suggest changes to graduation requirements
As Kansas high schools work toward the 95% graduation goal, the state education department is also taking its first look at high school diploma requirements in more than 20 years.
Watson last year established a task force, co-chaired by state education board member Jim McNiece and Basehor-Linwood High principal Jarred Fuhrman, to review a potential overhaul of Kansas’ graduation requirements. Since the fall, the 42-member task force has met monthly to develop recommendations on potential modifications.
While no final recommendation has been developed, the task force on Thursday discussed priorities they want to include in any proposed changes to high school diploma requirements.
- Keeping a 21-credit minimum, but adjusting and reclassifying which credits count toward that minimum. Districts could still adopt higher requirements, though.
- Clarifying options for schools to provide flexibility and personalization in how students meet academic competencies.
- Requiring students to earn some number of market value assets, or qualifications and skills that could include items like specific ACT scores, college credits or even extracurricular involvement in organizations like Scouting or 4H.
Changes would likely encourage schools to prioritize individual plans of study, which help students plan a high school course load and experience that puts them on a path to post-secondary education.
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The task force will present its recommendation to the Kansas State Board of Education in May, with the group taking public, online feedback over the next couple of months to consider as it develops that report.
Any changes to high school diploma requirements would apply to the current eighth-grade class when such a decision is made.