Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Graduation Rate Continues Decline

By Christopher B. Swanson — June 03, 2010 16 min read
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Every school day, more than 7,200 students fall through the cracks of America’s public high schools. Three out of every 10 members of this year’s graduating class, 1.3 million students in all, will fail to graduate with a diploma. The effects of this graduation crisis fall disproportionately on the nation’s most vulnerable youths and communities. A majority of nongraduates are members of historically disadvantaged minorities and other educationally underserved groups. They are more likely to attend school in large, urban districts. And they come disproportionately from communities challenged by severe poverty and economic hardship.

According to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center’s latest analysis of high school completion, the national graduation rate stands at 68.8 percent for the class of 2007, the most recent year for which data are available. This represents a slight drop, four-tenths of a percentage point, from 69.2 percent for the previous high school class.

The center calculates graduation rates for the nation, states, and every public school district in the country using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data (CCD). (More information on the CPI methodology can be found on Page 30 of this report.)

These findings mark the second consecutive year of declines in the national graduation rate, following a decade of mostly solid improvement. The latest decrease is considerably smaller than the nearly point-and-a-half drop from 2005 to 2006. Even so, a 0.4-percentage-point decline in the graduation rate means that, nationally, 11,000 fewer students earned diplomas in the class of 2007 compared with the previous year. The number is troubling, as those who fail to finish high school face far greater hardships on average than their graduating peers; their decisions not to finish school also hold implications for local labor markets, the national economy, and society at large.

The continued downturn in graduation is particularly concerning in light of the muscular response mounted around the dropout crisis in recent years. Transforming the American high school and ensuring that every student has a meaningful opportunity to earn a diploma that leads to a successful adult life have been explicit goals of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. This cause has mobilized aggressive grassroots organizing and rarely seen cross-sector collaborations, driven changes in state policies, as well as aggressive local school and district interventions, and prompted billions of dollars in philanthropic investments over the past decade.

Stalled progress on a nationwide scale speaks at least as much to the deep and broad roots of the dropout crisis as it does to the strength of the collective response. The current state of high school graduation further underscores that regaining traction will require renewed and sustained commitments from those concerned with the success of the nation’s schools and the essential role of a well-educated population in weaving a strong economic and social fabric.

The Long View

A dominant theme in debates over high school reform, many of which have unfolded in the pages of Diplomas Count and Education Week, has been the need for hard, objective data on graduation rates. Such information provides needed insights on the severity of the challenges facing the schools at a given point, the groups and communities hit particularly hard by the crisis, the trajectory of change over time, and the effectiveness of efforts aimed at boosting graduation and preparing students for college and careers after high school. Yet that information has proved surprisingly hard to come by. Filling that knowledge gap and providing the public with detailed information on graduation rates and trends are among the primary goals of Diplomas Count.

The Nation's Long and Winding Path to Graduation

Historical data can be used to trace the nation’s graduation rate well over a century into the past. In 1870, the earliest date on record, only 2 percent of 17-year-olds in the nation had a secondary-level education. The turn of the 20th century brought rapid social and economic changes, which ushered in a new age for education. In 1940, for the first time, half of all students finished high school, although graduation did not become an established norm until the 1950s. The U.S. graduation rate reached its historical high point at the end of the 1960s, with the graduation rate peaking at 77 percent in 1969.

Recent History Shows Setback

When contemporary data on the nation’s public schools became available in the late 1980s, the rate of graduation had gradually declined from its historic highs to around 70 percent. The graduation rate fell precipitously during the early 1990s, eventually stabilizing around 66 percent by the latter part of that decade. The period since then has generally been characterized by gradual but steady improvements. The class of 2005 was once again earning diplomas at a pace last seen in the early 1990s. However, two consecutive annual declines since then have eroded the nation’s graduation rate, which stood at slightly less than 69 percent for the class of 2007.

SOURCES: EPE Research Center, 2010; U.S. Department of Education

By combining original analysis from the EPE Research Center with historical data published by the Education Department, this year we were able to follow the trajectory of high school graduation over a period of nearly 140 years, a span of time that has witnessed the birth, growth, maturity, and, some would argue, the increasing obsolescence of American secondary education as we now know it.

Secondary schooling in the United States started as an essentially elite pursuit, with a mere 2 percent of the population acquiring the equivalent of a high school education in 1870, the earliest year for which data are available. It was not until several decades into the 20th century that Americans witnessed a quantum leap in engagement with high school, a transformation propelled by the ever-more-rapid industrialization of the U.S. economy and a continuing shift away from the nation’s agrarian past.

The share of the population with a secondary education increased threefold from 1920 to 1940, when, for the first time, a slim majority of American youths graduated from high school. Finishing high school became more firmly established as a social and educational norm in postwar America, as the graduation rate rose steadily through the 1950s and 1960s. Completion rates peaked in 1969, with 77 percent of that high school class earning diplomas.

Graduation in the United States

Progress on Graduation Rate Stalls PDF
Graduation Rates for 50 Largest DistrictsPDF
Projected Number of 2009 Nongraduates by StatePDF
Epicenters of the Graduation CrisisPDF
Charting Expectations for Big-City GraduationPDF
Graduation Policies for the Class of 2010PDF

The next three decades were marked by a retreat from those historical highs; the graduation rate eroded incrementally at certain times and fell significantly at others, including a sharp drop during the first half of the 1990s. Although the nation regained some ground between the late 1990s and 2005, the graduation rate now stands at about the same level as it did in the early 1960s.

A snapshot of contemporary results for the high school class of 2007 reveals a striking pattern of disparities that have long characterized high school completion. Reminiscent of the inequities in other fundamental outcomes such as test scores, we find stark divides in graduation along the lines of race, gender, and regional geography, as well as school and community environment.

Class Portrait

Although more than three-quarters of white and Asian students in the United States earn a diploma, the numbers are much more troubling for other demographic groups, only about half of whom graduate. Among Latinos, 56 percent successfully finish high school, while just 54 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of Native Americans graduate. On average, only two-thirds of male students earn a diploma, a rate 7 percentage points lower than for their female peers. The rates of high school completion for males from historically disadvantaged minority groups consistently fall at or below the 50 percent mark.

Across all urban school systems, six of every 10 students from the class of 2007 graduate. In districts characterized by high levels of racial or socioeconomic segregation and those serving communities with high rates of poverty, graduation rates typically range from 55 percent to 60 percent.

As we wrote last year, for the students who are most at risk of dropping out, the odds of earning a diploma amount to a toss of the coin.

And, the gap between high- and low-performing states remains alarming. The national leaders—Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin—each graduate more than 80 percent of all high school students. At the opposite end of the spectrum, fewer than 55 percent of students finish high school in Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina. A gap of 42 percentage points separates the top and bottom states. Overall, about half the states have graduation rates in the 65 percent to 75 percent range for the class of 2007.

A Graduation Paradox

Though the national graduation rate dropped slightly from 2006 to 2007, the EPE Research Center’s closer examination shows that each major racial and ethnic group posted at least a marginal gain in that period. This seemingly contradictory finding poses any number of questions, including: How can that be? The answer actually lends an important insight into the nature of the challenges inherent in tackling the dropout crisis. And that answer, to a large extent, is: Simpson’s Paradox.

A familiar concept within statistical circles, but rarely part of mainstream discussions, Simpson’s Paradox observes that there are circumstances in which disaggregated trends (such as graduation rates among minority groups) may not track closely with aggregate trends (for example, the nation’s overall graduation rate). There even can be times when aggregate and disaggregated trends run counter to one another. In such cases, some initially unnoticed factor usually accounts for the non-intuitive findings.

Shifting demographic patterns are the likely explanation in the case of graduation rates. Over time, the public school population has come to consist of proportionally fewer traditionally higher-performing white students and more members of historically underserved groups, most notably Latinos.

All else being equal, population growth among groups with low average graduation rates will tend to suppress improvements in the overall graduation rate. Pertinent to the case of high school completion: The size of the Latino student population, whose graduation rate currently lags 21 percentage points behind that of non-Hispanic whites, has grown by 50 percent in the past decade alone.

Put simply, the challenge of improving high school graduation rates is analogous to swimming upstream against a rapid and generally unfavorable demographic current. Many observers would argue that there is room for considerable improvement across the entire student population. The seemingly paradoxical findings noted here, however, would further suggest that targeting intervention efforts intensively on rapidly growing and low-performing student groups will be a precondition for driving meaningful change in the graduation rate at a national level.

Dropout Epicenters

A deeper engagement with hard data provides another important insight with implications for national reform efforts. The effects of the dropout crisis are widespread, affecting every state and corner of the country to some extent. But its most dire consequences are disproportionately concentrated in a relatively small number of places.

The EPE Research Center’s series of Cities in Crisis reports turned a national spotlight on the challenges faced by major metropolitan areas and the large disparities in graduation rates found between the urban cores of those regions and neighboring suburban communities. Those metro areas, which serve a large share of all public school students, exert a strong influence on the state of the nation as a whole. Other researchers, most notably Robert Balfanz and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University and the Everyone Graduates Center, have similarly noted the national significance of “dropout factories” the lowest-performing tier of American high schools.

In Diplomas Count 2010, we seek to identify the individual school systems at the epicenter of the dropout crisis, by leveraging the research center’s comprehensive database of district graduation rates and conditions. By combining information about the graduation rate and school enrollment patterns, we can calculate the number of students failing to complete high school with a diploma for every school system in the country.

The U.S. public education system consists of roughly 14,000 regular school districts, about 11,000 of which serve students at the secondary level and, therefore, produce graduates and dropouts. The research center ranked those 11,000 systems according to the number of dropouts they produce.

The analysis reveals a surprisingly concentrated dropout crisis. Among those school systems, a mere 25 districts account for one in every five nongraduates for the entire nation, or more than a quarter-million students who fail to graduate. Put another way, those 25 top-ranked systems, in terms of dropouts produced, account for as many nongraduates as the 8,400 lowest-ranked districts combined.

Those epicenters of the dropout crisis are made up of a combination of traditional big-city districts and large countywide school systems. Many of the latter are home to major urban centers. The New York City public school system, the nation’s largest district, serves 1.1 million students and predictably emerges as the leading source of nongraduates, with nearly 44,000 students slipping away each year. Despite its smaller size, the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified generates a comparable number of dropouts, owing to a graduation rate 14 points lower than in New York City. Ranked third in the nation is Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas. Chicago and Miami-Dade County, Fla., round out the top five.

Two factors account for the number of nongraduates, and graduates, that a district produces. The first is sheer size. Accordingly, New York City is the nation’s leading source of both graduates and dropouts. An equally important factor, however, is a district’s effectiveness in providing a high-quality high school education that leads to a diploma. In that respect, graduation rates in all the major dropout sites lag behind the national average, by anywhere from a few percentage points to more than 30 points.

Reasons for Optimism

The breadth of the dropout crisis, its severity, and, particularly, the extent to which it hurts schools and communities in the largest cities have all rightly been cause for alarm. Two often-overlooked dynamics, though, offer hope that strategically designed and targeted interventions hold the potential to drive measurable improvements in graduation.

The first relates to the highly concentrated nature of the crisis. As noted earlier, a large share of all the nation’s dropouts can be traced to about two dozen large, low-performing districts. Turning around those school systems will not be easy, but making substantial improvements in just that handful of districts would greatly improve the educational, career, and life prospects of tens of thousands of American youths and, by extension, strengthen the communities in which they live.

By the same token, real gains in just 25 districts could appreciably move the dial on graduation for the United States as a whole and help restore some of the momentum that has been lost over the past several years. Cutting the dropout rate by half in just the 25 leading centers of the crisis would yield 128,000 additional graduates and raise the nationwide graduation rate by more than 3 percentage points.

Another underappreciated layer of the graduation story is that, despite faltering progress at the national level, many local districts continue to make significant strides toward improving their graduation rates. Among those exceeding expectations are some of the country’s largest and most highly urbanized school systems.

Building on a special study conducted for last year’s edition of Diplomas Count, the EPE Research Center calculated the expected graduation rate for each district in the country. This prediction or expectation was based on a statistical model that took into account 10 distinct district characteristics consistently shown to be related to the graduation rate. These predicted graduation rates allow us to gauge a district’s performance relative to what would be expected for another district comparable in size, location, poverty level, and the other factors captured in the statistical analysis.

To focus more specifically on communities likely to be at the center of the crisis, we developed a matching algorithm to further narrow the results to a set of districts that closely fit the structural and demographic profile of the largest urban school systems. Because this set of peer districts shares a wide array of underlying characteristics and challenges, they offer highly relevant points of comparison for one another.

Among a group of about 150 closely matched school systems, we identified 21 “urban overachievers.” These are districts where the actual graduation rates for the class of 2007 were at least 10 percentage points higher than would be expected based on their structural and demographic characteristics. Detailed results of the analysis can be found on Page 26 of this report.

By national standards, most of these overachieving districts post graduation rates close to or even lower than the national average of 68.8 percent. Nevertheless, other districts may have something to learn from these school systems that have beaten the odds in the face of often-daunting challenges.

Tracking State Policy

To assess the status of state policies that may affect high school graduation, the EPE Research Center conducted an original survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Eighteen policy indicators were used to track activity in three broad areas: college- and work-readiness definitions, high school completion credentials, and high school exit exams. For this year’s graduating class, 23 states (three more than last year) have instituted a definition of college readiness that captures the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level college courses, typically articulated in terms of coursetaking recommendations, academic standards, minimum scores on standardized tests, or sets of applicable skills. Thirty states have comparable definitions of work readiness in place.

The significant number of additional states that are now developing definitions suggests that college and career readiness will continue to be an important area of state activity.

Perhaps the most fundamental way states can influence patterns and rates of graduation is through their authority to set requirements for earning a diploma. Typically, state policies involve a combination of formal coursetaking requirements for standard diplomas and avenues that may allow students to earn an alternative high school credential.

Course-credit requirements have changed little in recent years. For the average student in the class of 2010, earning a diploma requires accumulating a total of 21 credits, typically including four credits in English/language arts, three each in mathematics and social studies, and two or three in science. Half the states offer some form of advanced recognition for academic accomplishments above and beyond those required for a standard diploma or for a concentration in a career or technical program of study. Thirty states offer a certificate of attendance or other alternative credential for students not fully meeting the requirements for a diploma.

To qualify for a standard diploma, students have to pass exit examinations in 25 states, one more than last year. English/language arts and math are the most commonly tested subjects, with 23 states assessing students in both areas. Testing programs in 11 of those states also cover science and social studies. Among the states that make passing an exit exam a formal condition for earning a diploma, all but three allow for an appeals process or alternative route to a diploma for at least some students who fail the test.

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