National High School Graduation Rate Climbs

By Caralee J. Adams — January 22, 2013 7 min read
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The national high school graduation rate has improved notably, with 78.2 percent of public school students receiving a diploma in 2009-10, up from 75.5 percent the year before, according to the newest figures released from the National Center for Education Statistics Tuesday.

In 2005-06, the rate was 73.4 percent, and in 2000-01, it was 71.7 percent.

The new NCES report reflects the best performance in decades by high school students. It is the highest graduation rate since 1969-70, when the figure was 78.7 percent. Since 1972, when the event dropout rate was 6.1 percent, it has steadily improved, falling to 3.4 percent for the class of 2010.

There were 38 states with an increase of one percentage point or more, in the most recent analysis. Overall, 3.1 million students received a diploma in 2009-10, the report, “Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009-10" finds.

Student success varied widely, with an “averaged freshman graduation rate” of 57.8 percent in Nevada and 91.4 percent in Vermont. AFGR looks at on-time graduation rates for freshmen over four years.

The NCES analysis shows about 514,000 or 3.4 percent of public school students in grades 9-12 dropped out in 2009-2010. That is a decline from the previous year, when a 4.1 percent dropout rate was reported. The states struggling the most with dropout rates were Mississippi (7.4 percent) and Arizona (7.8 percent), while New Hampshire has just 1.2 percent of students quitting and Idaho 1.4 percent.

Nationwide, girls are less likely to drop out (2.9 percent) compared to boys (3.8 percent). In every state, the male dropout rate was higher, the report reveals.

In a conference call with reporters last week, NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley said it is difficult to identify the specific causes of the graduation-rate increases, but he speculated fewer students might have exited high school early because of lack of available jobs.

“Historically, we see a correlation between the dropout rate going down as the economy also is weaker,” said Buckley. Also, federal and individual states policies may have had an impact, he added.

Breaking down the data by race and ethnicity in 2009-10, the report shows the graduation rate for Asian/Pacific Islander students was 93.5 percent; for whites, it was 83 percent; 71.4 percent for Hispanic students; 69.1 percent for American Indian/Alaska Native students; and 66.1 percent for black students.

In comparing these latest figures to those from 2005-06, the gap narrows between white and black and between white and Hispanic students, said Buckley. While graduation rates have improved for all students, Latino students have experienced the largest gains: 10 percentage points in the four-year period.

A closer looking at dropout rates shows the rate was highest among American Indian/Alaska Native students (6.7 percent), followed by black students (5.5 percent), Hispanics (5.0 percent), whites (2.3 percent), and Asian/Pacific Islander (1.9 percent).


The graduation-rate increase may be the result, in part, to high school reform efforts paying off, suggests Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“That’s a pretty good jump this year,” said Balfanz of the latest figures. “Steady upward progress and then a big jump.” Students getting diplomas in 2010 were 9th graders in 2006, which was the height of the high school reform push and, therefore, the rewards began to be evident four year later, he said.

The success among Latinos may be linked to much of the population migrating from the South and cities to other parts of the country that don’t have overwhelmed school systems, Balfanz said.

Still, one in five students are not getting a diploma, so there is more to do, he added. For the momentum to continue, the focus needs to remain on high school reform and efforts expanded to collaborate with middle school to improve college and career readiness. Also, he advocates better early-warning systems to identify struggling students and trying to replicate what’s working in the most successful states.

The analysis does not capture students who might take more than four years to graduate or those who complete credentials with a GED, explained NCES officials.

The new NCES report will likely be watched closely because it is one source that shows improvement over time and across states, said Balfanz, but the results are not linked to individual school accountability systems.

There are some changes under way in how student success is measured. This had led to improved data quality and better tracking of students in many states, along with policy changes, added Buckley.

The averaged freshman graduation rate estimates the rate at which students graduate on time, using available aggregate data. NCES calculates the AFGR by adding the incoming 8th grade class in the first year, 9th grade class in the second year, and 10th grade class in the third year, then dividing the sum by three. This averaged freshman class, which accounts for the spike in dropouts often seen during the high school transition period, is compared to the number of diplomas awarded four years later to get the final graduation rate.

These are not, however, the “official” No Child Left Behind graduation rates used for accountability purposes. Those are not yet available, though it’s reasonable to assume a similar trajectory. The NCES rates are not as accurate as the individual student tracking now required of districts under NCLB.

In response to wide criticism that overinflated the graduation rates, the 2008 updates to the Title 1 regulations changed the method by which districts calculate high school completion. The new method, the adjusted cohort graduation rate, requires districts to follow individual students over time and count any student who left as a dropout unless he or she had moved to another degree-bearing program at another school. Individual student data have only been widely available across most states and districts as of the 2011 graduating class, according to Susan L. Aud, senior research scientist at NCES.


The change in federal graduation calculation came as a hard wake-up call for districts like the 63,000-student Washoe County, which was one of the lowest-graduating districts in the lowest-graduating state of Nevada. Eighteen of its high schools were dubbed “dropout factories” by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Ben Hayes, director of accountability at Washoe. Under the district’s previous graduation-rate method, “we were sitting kind of complacent at 74 percent, and when we started looking at those cohort rates, it was 56 percent. We were all just kind of sick at that.”

The district dedicated itself to a new motto—"Every child, by name and face, to graduation"—and implemented an early-warning system based on research by Balfanz of Johns Hopkins. Principals began receiving quarterly reports about students’ attendance patterns and preparation for the state’s exit exams in mathematics, reading, science, and writing.

“There’s not any one thing that’s causing [students] to get off track, but what we find is adolescents often make bad decisions,” Hayes said. “You have a bad month in high school, and that could cost you three credits and you give up.”

In response, Washoe reorganized its freshman classes into smaller “houses,” each of which received its own guidance adviser. It expanded child care for its student-parents and provided in- and after-school credit-recovery programs. It created “re-engagement centers” to find and bring back students who had already left school. In the process, the district has lifted its graduation rate from that disheartening 56 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in the class of 2012.

“Some part of that is, we’re just more vigilant in finding out where every kid who doesn’t show up to school has gone; whether they had transferred to somewhere else that was taking care of them,” Hayes said.

Schools also started thinking about students’ lives beyond graduation. The 1,375-student Proctor R. Hug High School in Reno is one of those. The Alliance for Excellent Education dubbed it a dropout factory back in 2008, for graduating an abysmal 28 percent of its incoming freshmen four years later.

Hug won an $80,000 grant to implement the All Students College Educated in Nevada Today, or ASCENT program, which provides community mentors for at-risk students and scholarships for those who go on to college after graduation.

“We’re building small victories all over the place,” said Jason C. Aytes, the ASCENT coordinator at Hug. Our kids gets get through high school, even if they don’t go on to college. They’re building a huge foundation that they can take to college or work.”

Hug also found many students leaving after 2008 to help support their families after the 2008 collapse of the construction industry in Reno, so the school this year launched a “nighthawk academy” to allow students to keep earning credits while working day jobs.

The school is still struggling, but graduated 55 percent of its 2010 class.

With reporting from Sarah Sparks.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.