Special Report
Equity & Diversity

As Graduation Rates Rise, Focus Shifts to Dropouts

By The Editors — May 31, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 2 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect statistic for the share of returning dropouts who later attained a high school diploma in a study of San Bernardino, Calif., youth. Fewer than one in five of those dropouts went on to get a diploma.

First, comes the good news: The nation’s high school graduation rate is at its highest point since the 1970s.

According to the newest calculation by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, the graduation rate for the class of 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available) stands at nearly 75 percent. That’s an improvement of nearly 2 percentage points from the previous year and about 8 points in the past decade. At that pace of improvement, the center projects, the percent of students earning a diploma on time could surpass the historical high of 77.1 percent within a few years.

The sobering news is that, despite this upbeat trend, the glass remains partly empty. Many students—roughly 1 million a year—leave high school without a diploma. Education Week‘s Diplomas Count 2013 focuses on these students—a group for whom the prospect of landing a good-paying job or earning a postsecondary credential is likely to be dim. While much attention has gone to identifying teenagers who are at risk of dropping out and finding ways to keep them in school, comparatively fewer efforts have been expended on bringing back the students who have already left.

The recent economic downturn, however, may have helped catalyze new interest in these youths. As one researcher notes in the report, before the recession, “it was believed that there were still places in the economy they could go. We know now that isn’t the case.”

Nonprofit groups, for-profit ventures, school districts, and some states have created or ramped up dropout-recovery programs.

It isn’t easy work. Longitudinal research in San Bernardino, Calif., found that 30 percent of the school system’s dropouts returned at least once to their high schools—but fewer than one in five dropouts managed to get a diploma in the time frame of the study.

The new attention to dropout recovery also comes as a major path to a second chance at a high school credential—the General Educational Development test battery—is undergoing a transformation. The revised and computerized version makes its debut in January, and it’s unclear how the changes will affect the educational trajectories of this difficult-to-teach population.

The other good news in this year’s statistical analysis is that the improvements in graduation rates cut across demographic groups. In fact, much of the nation’s progress since 2000 has been driven by historically disadvantaged groups.

Graduation rates for Latinos, the subject of last year’s Diplomas Count, have risen 16 percentage points over the past decade, reaching 68 percent for the class of 2010. Rates for black students, now at 62 percent, have risen 13 points. Native American students may be the exception: Despite a 3-percentage-point improvement since 2000, their graduation rate declined in three of the past five years.

Board of Trustees, Editorial Projects in Education

Larry Berger, chief executive officer, Wireless Generation Inc. • Gina Burkhardt, executive vice president, American Institutes for Research • Chris Curran, co-founder and managing partner, Education Growth Partners • Virginia B. Edwards, president and editor-in-chief, EPE and Education Week (ex officio) • Francesca Forzani, associate director, TeachingWorks • Mike Lawrence, executive vice president and chief reputation officer, Cone Communications • Barbara Newton, president, Sunset Publishing • Jim Sexton, vice president digital, B.A.S.S. • Lester Strong, chief executive officer, Experience Corps • Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, assistant to the president for educational issues, American Federation of Teachers • Jerry Weast, founder and chief executive officer, Partnership for Deliberate Excellence • Ronald A. Wolk, chair emeritus (ex officio) • Jessie Woolley-Wilson, chief executive officer and president, DreamBox Learning

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