College & Workforce Readiness

High School Graduation Rates: Deep Pockets of Need Even as Picture Improves

By Catherine Gewertz — July 16, 2015 1 min read
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The sleepy, slow days of summer are a great time to curl up with a 112-page compendium of high school dropout statistics.

Right? [wink wink]

We think so. Those of you who disagree are more than welcome to use this document as a doorstop. But you’ll miss a bracing refresher course on why we need to work hard to improve the experiences, and prospects, of our middle and high school students.

The document I’m leafing through is “Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States:1972-2012,” issued last month by the National Center for Education Statistics.

For starters, flip to page 13 of the report, which explores the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). That’s the calculation that tells you what portion of a given entering 9th grade class finishes high school with a diploma in four years. Page 13 greets you with this cheerful tidbit:

“For [school year] 2010-11, the estimated national four-year ACGR for public high school students was 79 percent, and for [school year] 2011-12 it was 80 percent. This indicates that nearly 4 out of 5 students receive a regular high school diploma within four years of starting 9th grade for the first time.”

That rate dipped as low as 59 percent in the District of Columbia and as high as 89 percent in Iowa. Here’s how it looks on a map (page 25 of the report):

The good news is that 37 states showed increases in their four-year graduation rates between 2011 and 2012. An NCES table that covers 2011-2013 shows us the slow upward movement of the grad rate, from 79 percent to 81 percent.

News of the 81 percent national rate prompted celebratory headlines like this one, from U.S. News & World Report: “High School Graduation Rate Hits All-Time High.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the new high a “profound milestone.”

But as Duncan noted, even as the grad rates rise, a lot of serious work remains to be done. We see this breakdown in another NCES report. The students who are least likely to graduate in four years? Those still learning English, and those with disabilities, followed by Native American and African-American students. Barely 7 in 10 Hispanic students finish in four years.

Old news? Sure. Patterns we’re painfully familiar with? Absolutely. But there’s nothing like seeing it all again, imagining each face that makes up those statistics as the memory of the last school year fades, and the hard work of the next one is still hanging there, waiting to be done.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.