Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Graduation Rate Breaks 80 Percent

By Christopher B. Swanson — June 02, 2014 4 min read
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Since the launch of Diplomas Count in 2006, a centerpiece of the Education Week annual report has been a comprehensive original analysis investigating high school graduation rates at the national, state, and local levels. Over that period, the report has used a proprietary method for calculating graduation rates known as the Cumulative Promotion Index, or CPI, which I developed in 2003 while working at the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Like much of the research on graduation rates conducted during the past decade, Education Week‘s work has drawn its raw data from the Common Core of Data, a census of schools and districts managed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Unlike others studying graduation, the Education Week Research Center built the core of its research program around first calculating graduation rates for every school district and then using the local rates to generate results for the nation, states, and other jurisdictions.

That bottom-up approach is distinctive and has enabled Education Week to explore subtle aspects of high school graduation and district performance. For instance, Diplomas Count has regularly examined connections between local conditions and rates of high school completion and has highlighted school systems nationwide graduating students at higher-than-expected rates. Such deep insights have been a powerful tool for advancing the field’s understanding of the nation’s dropout crisis and identifying the locations—sometimes unexpected—of rapid and robust progress.

The research center’s analytic work using the Cumulative Promotion Index hinges on being able to gain access to detailed, district-level diploma data from the Common Core of Data. Unfortunately, the release of that federal database has been significantly delayed, and the information needed was not available for use in Diplomas Count 2014.

Data Download
Graduation in the United States PDF

Instead, this year’s report draws on results from a recently released study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which presents national and state graduation rates for the high school class of 2012. The calculation method used by NCES—the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate—is similar to Education Week‘s CPI approach, in that it uses information from the Common Core of Data, focuses specifically on public schools, and provides an estimate of the rate at which students graduate on time from high school with a regular diploma.

Highest Since the 1960s

Graduation Rates on a Steady Rise

The nation’s public school graduation rate has been increasing steadily for six consecutive years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. With the exception of Native Americans, all major racial and ethnic groups have seen consistent gains during this period. The strongest year-over-year improvements were found for Latinos and African-Americans.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

According to the federal data, for the first time in the nation’s history, more than eight in 10 students are completing high school with a diploma. The national graduation rate for the class of 2012, calculated using the Averaged Freshman Graduation method, rose to 81 percent. Two years earlier, the rate reached 78 percent, toppling the previous record for graduation, which had stood since the late 1960s.

Still, in 2012, of an estimated 3.8 million students who entered 9th grade in fall 2008, 760,000 failed to successfully finish high school with their entering class. The Education Week Research Center analysis also finds that students from historically underserved groups are disproportionately represented among U.S. nongraduates. African-American and Latino students, for example, constitute the majority of those failing to graduate, although they make up just 38 percent of the overall student population.

As that finding would suggest, substantial divides still separate student groups in 2012. Asian and white students post the highest graduation rates, at 93 percent and 85 percent, respectively. By contrast, the share of students completing high school falls to 76 percent for Latinos, and 68 percent for African-American and American Indian students. A 25 percentage-point graduation gap separates the highest- and lowest-performing racial and ethnic groups. Though smaller, the gender gap—nationally, female students graduate at a rate 7 percentage points higher than their male classmates—can be found in every state and has remained remarkably resistant to change over the years.

Related Data
Nongraduates, Class of 2012 Infographic
Graduation Gaps Infographic

Despite continuing challenges in closing the graduation gap and eliminating historical disparities, it should be noted that completion rates have risen consistently in recent years. Since 2007, the U.S. graduation rate has gained 7 percentage points, increasing from 74 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2012. Over that period, rates improved in all but three states: Michigan and South Dakota held steady, while Rhode Island lost 2 points. Those national gains have been driven largely by groups that have historically lagged behind. Graduation rates for Latinos have increased by 14 points since 2007, roughly double the national pace. Improvements for African-American students have also exceeded the national average.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provides support to Diplomas Count.

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