Graduation Rate Reaches Highest Peak in Decades

By Caralee J. Adams & Sarah D. Sparks — January 29, 2013 7 min read
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America’s high school graduation rate has notably improved, according to figures released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The “averaged freshman graduation rate” rose to 78.2 percent of public school students receiving a diploma in 2010, up from 75.5 percent the year before. In 2006, the rate was 73.4 percent, and in 2001, it was 71.7 percent.

The new report reflects the best performance in decades by high school students. It is the highest graduation rate since 1970, when the figure hit 78.7 percent.

Also improved was the dropout rate, calculated as the proportion of students who drop out in any given year; it fell from 14.6 percent in 1972 to 11 percent in 1992 to 3.4 percent for the class of 2010.

Thirty-eight states showed a graduation-rate increase of 1 percentage point or more in the most recent analysis. Overall, 3.1 million students received a diploma in 2010.

Student success varied widely across states, with 57.8 percent graduating in Nevada and 91.4 percent in Vermont. The averaged freshman graduation rate looks at on-time graduation rates for freshmen over four years.

The NCES analysis shows about 514,000 students in grades 9-12 dropped out in 2009-10. That is a decline from the previous year, when a 4.1 percent dropout rate was reported. States struggling the most with dropouts were Mississippi (7.4 percent) and Arizona (7.8 percent), while New Hampshire had just 1.2 percent of students quitting and Idaho 1.4 percent.

Nationwide, girls were less likely to drop out (2.9 percent) than boys (3.8 percent).

Jobs and Reforms

In a conference call with reporters, NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley said it was difficult to identify the specific causes of the rate increases, but he speculated that because of a lack of jobs in a tough economy, fewer students might have left high school early.

Climbing Up

The graduation rate for the class of 2010 is at its highest since the 1969-1970 school year based on the “average freshman graduation rate.”


SOURCE: National Center for Education Studies

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

The report also breaks down data by race and ethnicity. In 2009-10, the report shows Asian/Pacific Islander students had the highest graduation rate, 93.5 percent, followed by white students, at 83 percent. For Hispanic students, the rate was 71.4 percent, while it was 69.1 percent for American Indian/Alaska Native students and 66.1 percent for black students.

The achievement gap narrowed from 2006 to 2010 between black and white and between Hispanic and white students, Mr. Buckley said. While graduation rates improved for all groups, Latino students experienced the largest gains: 10 percentage points.

American Indian/Alaska Native students were the most likely to drop out, followed by black, Hispanic, white, and Asian/Pacific Islander students.

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

“That’s a pretty good jump this year,” he said of the latest figures. “Steady upward progress and then a big jump.”

Students getting diplomas in 2010 were 9th graders in 2006, he said, during a stretch when high school improvement was riding high. Mr. Balfanz cited, for example, the initiative to break up big high schools with low graduation rates to create smaller schools and 9th grade academies. He posited that those efforts targeting 9th graders paid off for them four years later.

The success among Latino students may be linked to much of the population migrating from the U.S. South and cities to other localities and parts of the country that don’t have overwhelmed school systems, he said.

Still, one-fifth of students are not getting a diploma, so there is more to do, Mr. Balfanz added.

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

The report will likely be watched closely because it shows improvement over time and across states, but the results do not use the official federal method to calculate individual students’ graduation rates for the purposes of accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act. That method has only been in common use for a few years and can’t be used for long-term trends yet.

The averaged freshman rate is not as accurate as the individual student tracking now required of districts under the NCLB law.

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

In response to wide criticism that the NCES averaged graduation calculation method inflated rates, updated NCLB regulations in 2008 changed the way by which districts must calculate high school completion. The new method, the “adjusted cohort graduation rate,” requires districts to follow individual students over time and count any who left as dropouts unless they moved to another program for a regular high school diploma at another school. Individual student data have been widely available across most states and districts only as of the 2011 graduating class, according to Susan L. Aud, a senior research scientist at the NCES.

Wake-Up Call

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

“It was heartbreaking,” said Ben Hayes, the director of accountability for the Washoe district. 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 Mr. Balfanz of Johns Hopkins. Principals began receiving quarterly reports about students’ attendance patterns and readiness 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,” Mr. Hayes said. “You have a bad month in high school, and that could cost you three credits and you give up.”

In response, Washoe County reorganized its freshman classes into smaller “houses,” each of which received its own guidance adviser. It expanded child care for student-parents and provided in- and after-school credit-recovery programs. It created “re-engagement centers” to find and bring back those who had already left school.

In the process, the district lifted its graduation rate from that disheartening 56 percent in 2008 to 70 percent for 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,” Mr. Hayes said.

Nevada 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 labeled it a dropout factory in 2008, for graduating an abysmal 28 percent of its incoming freshmen within four years.

Hug High won an $80,000 grant to implement a program that provides community mentors for students deemed at risk academically and scholarships for those who go on to college.

“We’re building small victories all over the place,” said Jason C. Aytes, the program’s coordinator at Hug. “Our kids 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 High also found many students leaving after 2008 to help support their families after the 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 its graduated rate had improved to 55 percent for its 2010 class.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Grad Rate at Highest Since 1970


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