High School Graduation Rate Hits 40-Year Peak in the U.S.

For all the outcry over slipping education standards, a new report says schools across the country are gaining strength on one key indicator.
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The nation's high school graduation rate is approaching 75 percent, its highest rate in 40 years, according to a new report from Education Week. Of course, that good news must be tempered with a sobering statistic -- an estimated 1 million students will fail to graduate this year, a loss of 5,500 students for every day on the academic calendar.

The annual Diplomas Count report tracks graduation rates across the country and calculated the national average at 74.7 percent for the class of 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. That's nearly 8 percentage points higher than the graduation rate for the class of 2000. Vermont had the nation's highest graduation rate at 85 percent with the District of Columbia finishing last at 57 percent. Between 2000 to 2010, graduation rates are up in 46 states, although the size of those gains varies widely - from a tenth of a percentage point in Virginia to 31.5 percentage points in Tennessee.

The nationwide graduation rate calculated by Ed Week is lower than the one released in a January report from the U.S. Department of Education -- 78.2 percent for the 2009-10 academic year -- which was touted as the highest level in three decades. Some disparity in reported rates isn't unusual. Until recently there were marked differences in how individual states calculated and reported high school graduates. Data reported for the 2010-11 academic year marks the first time all of the states used a uniform measure to calculate graduation rates, in accordance with a compact signed by the nation's governors in an effort to improve accuracy and accountability.

Significant jumps in the percentages of black and Latino students graduating were an important factor in the improved nationwide graduation rate, according to Ed Week. The full report, and the spotlight stories focusing on efforts to get dropouts back in school, is well worth reading. I was particularly interested in the data on young adults ages 16-21. Here's what that group - 27 million -- looks like nationally:

  • More than 20 million are in school, either K-12 or higher ed;
  • 5.1 million graduated but are not enrolled in a post-secondary institution;
  • 1.8 million young adults (which, not surprisingly, includes a disproportionate percentage of minorities) have left school without a diploma. Of those 1.2 million of them -- 66 percent -- are not working.

That last group, categorized by Ed Week as potentially "recoverable youth" that could still benefit from public education programs, is understandably a cause of particular concern. The depths of the recession and the lack of low-skills jobs means high school dropouts are finding themselves squeezed out of the workforce -- and future life opportunities. This year's Ed Week report (subtitled "Second Chances") focuses on efforts by community groups, schools, districts and states to find creative ways to lure dropouts back to class. The underlying message: With a high school education now a prerequisite for a reasonable standard of living, it's worth the multiple attempts it often takes to get the diploma into the student's hand.

"The personal stakes for someone who doesn't at least finish their high school education are dire," said Christopher Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Ed Week. "It's difficult to bring people back to school after they've dropped out especially if they're way behind and there are other demands on them that pull them away. But it's so important for what they're able to do with their lives after that."

Asian students had the highest graduation rate (81 percent) followed closely by white students (80 percent). To be sure, a significant opportunity and achievement gap remains for minority students, although the Ed Week report notes some positive, decade-long trends:

  • With a graduation rate of 68 percent, and the gap between Latino and white students has been cut in half;
  • Black students posted a graduation rate of 62 percent, which represents a 30 percent narrowing of the gap with white students.

On the downside, Native American students continue to have the lowest graduation rate of the ethnic groups, at 51.1 percent in 2010. It's worth noting that the forced budget cuts of the federal sequester are being felt particularly hard by schools that receive what's known as "impact aid" and serve students living on Indian reservations.

Over the past decade there have been numerous initiatives at the local, state and national level to improve the nation's graduation rate, particularly among historically underserved student populations. It appear that groundswell is building into momentum on several fronts, and the next step - for educators, policymakers, community groups, families, and the students themselves - will be to sustain it. One issue that will need consideration: How to find the resources for the personalized, intensive, wraparound services and support to help students at risk of dropping out.

From the Ed Week report:

"I'd like to think [attention to dropouts] comes from a surge of academic conscience, but every student that drops out is a capital loss ... and every one brought back is a reclaimed revenue source," says Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of the 20,300-student unified school district in Oceanside, Calif. "It's real easy to not think about these kids because they're not the easiest population to work with, but there are so many of them, ... and, man, there are some really bright kids who have dropped out of school."

Expect the Ed Week data to will yield stories from individual states; there should be plenty of attention on Tennessee's education reform efforts which seem to be bearing fruit. On the flipside, there also ought to be a spotlight on what Ed Week calls the "epicenters of the graduation crisis" - the 25 school systems accounting for 18 percent of the dropouts. Not surprisingly the nation's first and second largest school districts (New York City and Los Angeles) lead the pack. "Dropout factories" will likely return to the top of the education buzzword list.

It will also be interesting if the data work their way into the ongoing conversation about the new Common Core State Standards, which have faced a barrage of criticism in recent weeks. How might the roll-out of the new academic expectations, including the new assessments that come with them, affect graduation rates in coming years? Could short-term bumps in the road during the implementation make it harder to hold on to students already struggling? Or is there a potential long-term payoff on the horizon? Might the higher expectations of the common core increase the value of a high school diploma, and a student's chances of being college and career-ready when they earn one?

"I think you can spin different scenarios where the common core could negatively impact graduation rates," Swanson told me Wednesday. "But there are separate story lines that could play out related to the standards themselves versus the assessments versus how the assessments might be used for accountability purposes at the individual level - such as a student's promotion or graduation. How states might decide to use those assessments for those purposes is in their court. We'll have to wait and see."


This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun from 2002 to 2010, and in 2011 she was Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She blogs at www.educatedreporter.com.

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