Student Achievement

40 States Improve High School Graduation Rates

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 20, 2012 2 min read
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All but 10 states and the District of Columbia saw a bigger share of their high school students tossing tasseled hats into the air from 2002 to 2009, according to a March 19 report on graduation rates in the U.S.

Overall, the nation’s high school graduation rate rose by nearly 3 percentage points over those eight years, bringing it to 75.5 percent from 72.6 percent. Wisconsin boasted the highest 2009 graduation rate at 90.7 percent. Nevada brought up the rear with a rate of 56.3 percent, a report from various education groups titled Building a Grad Nation reveals.

The most-improved award for graduation rates goes to Tennessee, which saw an increase of 17.8 percentage points over those eight years, bringing it to 77.4 percent in 2009. New York won the silver medal with a 13-point increase to 73.5 percent. Four other states (Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vermont) made large gains, defined as greater than 7 percentage points, while 14 other states show moderate gains of between 3 and 6.9 points.

In addition to having the lowest graduation rate, Nevada also featured the biggest drop of any state, seeing a 15.6 percentage point plunge from 2002. Connecticut saw the next-largest decline, 4.3 points, followed by a pair of southwestern states, New Mexico (2.6) and Arizona (2.2).

The report was authored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center, at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. It serves as an annual update on graduation rates for 2012.

The authors invoke a little post-World War II history by referring the “Civic Marshall Plan” required for high school graduation rates. (Maybe the next report should be called “Saving Student Ryan"—after all, Gen. George C. Marshall did appear briefly in Steven Spielberg’s World War II opus.) According to the report, “If each state had met the Civic Marshall Plan goal of a 90 percent graduation rate, there would have been 580,000 additional high school graduates from the Class of 2011.” High school graduates earn on average $130,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than high school dropouts, the report states. (College graduates, in turn, earn at least $1 million more on average than dropouts.)

Wisconsin was the only state that had a graduation rate of over 90 percent, while 15 states had a graduation rate of 80 percent or higher.

New York and Tennessee also led the way in producing the two biggest increases in the number of additional graduates in 2009 compared with 2002, with New York producing 31,978 new graduates and Tennessee handing out 13,880 more diplomas.

The top 12 states in that category churned out 108,617 additional graduates over that time span, while the 10 states trailing the field produced 20,601 fewer graduates over those eight years.

Several states that made statistical progress, however, did not get such glowing accolades in Building a Grad Nation. Sixteen states made “limited or no progress” in their graduation rates, the report says. These states saw increases of less than 2.6 percentage points, below the jump in the national average.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.