Successes & Challenges of On-Time High School Graduation Rates in Spokane County

by Dr. Kelley Cullen

Graduating from high school is a milestone many young adults look forward to. It marks the end of compulsory school attendance and for most, advancement to either employment or post-secondary education. According to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, it is the goal of public high schools to help prepare students to meet 21st century demands in their working and personal lives. High school students who graduate enjoy more financial stability and job security and are more likely to engage in their local communities at a higher rate than those who take longer or who do not graduate.

In order to graduate from high school in Washington State, students must earn enough credits, meet standards on state assessments and complete a High School & Beyond Plan. Students who are able to complete the requirements in four years (9th through 12th grade) are said to graduate “on-time.” Spokane Trends Indicator 3.3.3 shows the Public High School On-Time Graduation Rate for the county as well as the for the school districts in the City of Spokane & the City of Spokane Valley. from the 2010-2011 school to year to the 2019-2020 school year. This measure uses a four-year cohort approach following students from freshman to senior year and allows for transfers and dropouts. The on-time graduation rate is measured as the percentage of the final cohort that graduates in four years. Although the indicator shows Spokane County, details for each of the public-school districts in the county is available for data download.


Looking just at each of the nine school districts compared to the county average in the graph below, it is easy to see that the traditional public high schools have been very successful in graduating their students on time. Most of the districts enjoy graduation rates above the county average of 85.3% with West Valley SD leading the way at 98% in the most recent school year. The largest district, Spokane Public Schools whose cohort makes up one-third of the entire county cohort had an on-time graduation rate of 89%, well above the state average of 83% and the national average of 86% (according to the National Center for Education Statistics – NCES).

In fact, the average across all nine districts is an on-time graduation rate of 90.8%, meaning that nine out of every 10 traditional public high school students graduate within four years.


Table 1 below provides detail for the graduating class of 2020 broken down by the 12 districts. In reconciling the district totals with the county totals, however, it is clear that there are 600+ students, over 10% of the total final cohort for the county, who are not included in the individual district totals. All of those students attend the non-traditional / alternative high school programs listed below. Data on these schools has been suppressed, often due to their smaller cohort sizes and possible identifiability of individual students.



It would not be fair to make sweeping generalizations about this disparate group of schools. Instead, focusing simply on the student count, of the 609 students, 223 graduated on time, for a graduation rate of only 36.6% collectively. Altogether, the addition of these students to the district totals reveals how and why the county graduation rate is below the weighted average of the 12 districts.

Overall, however, can still celebrate that the average on-time high school graduation rate across all high schools in Spokane County was 85.3% for the Class of 2020 – up 4.6 percentage points over ten years since 2011, and still above the state average of 83%.

Thus, while the traditional public high school environment seems to be working well for a vast majority of students in the county, it is important to consider the 10% who are presently learning in non-traditional environments and are graduating on-time at much lower rates. Spokane indicator 3.2.4 shows that the percentage of students enrolled in public alternate instruction high school programs has doubled from 5% to 10% since the 2008-09 school year. And as a result of the pandemic, more students may choose to continue remote / online learning. It will be important for educators and administrators to ensure that the needs of ALL students are being met as they progress towards graduation in a timely fashion.