College & Workforce Readiness

U.S. Lagging in Graduation Rate, Report Says

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 06, 2002 4 min read
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The United States spends more per pupil than most other industrialized countries, but it isn’t faring as well as many of those countries in getting students to graduate from high school, and is about average in overall academic achievement, a report concludes.

The 376-page report can be downloaded from the OECD. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Those are some of the findings released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in its annual report comparing K-12 schooling in 32 industrialized countries.

According to the report, “Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2002,” only 74 percent of students of the typical age of high school graduation in the United States finished high school in 2000, while 97 percent did in Hungary and 94 percent did in Japan.

Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Sweden all graduated higher proportions of their high-school-age students than did the United States.

Fernando M. Reimers, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, blames the disappointing U.S. graduation rate on the nation’s emphasis on standards that are tied to high-stakes testing, which he believes is a narrow vision for education.

“The teachers can’t teach to those standards, and some students, especially when there are high stakes, don’t even try to meet those standards,” he said.

But Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and the director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which focuses on improving K-12 schooling, said that so far, standards have mostly affected K-8 education, and can’t be blamed for low graduation rates.

He predicts that high school students in the United States will soon fare better in comparison with high school students in other countries as standards are increasingly applied to secondary of education.

The report’s findings point out that some countries have dramatically improved high school graduation rates, while the United States apparently hasn’t made progress, according to comparisons of different age groups.

Among people now between the ages of 55 and 64, the United States ranks first in having the highest proportion—83 percent—who hold high school diplomas. But the study found that among the younger generation, the graduation rates of many other countries surpass those of the United States.

South Korea, for example, has a high school graduation rate for 55- to 64-year-olds of just 30 percent—ranking it 24th among OECD countries for that group—but has the highest graduate rate of all OECD countries for 25- to 34-year-olds. Ninety- five percent of Koreans in that age group have high school diplomas, compared with 88 percent in the United States.

Excellent high school graduation rates don’t necessarily show that a country is providing a high-quality education, say the report’s authors, who also examine student achievement in reading literacy, mathematics, and science in the 32 OECD countries.

Neither High Nor Low

While the United States has some top-performing students, it ranks neither high nor low among OECD countries when its educational outcomes are averaged.

The United States is one of many countries that show large disparities between high and low academic performers.

For example, 12 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds score at the highest of five possible levels in reading literacy. Those students, according to the report, can comprehend complex texts, evaluate information and create hypotheses, and apply specialized knowledge. At the same time, 6 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds score below the first of the five literacy levels, meaning they lack the most basic reading skills, such as being able to identify the main theme of a text.

Several countries—Finland, Japan, and South Korea, for instance—have much higher average literacy among 15-year-olds than the United States with less disparity within that performance. Mr. Treisman argues that the report reflects the inequities in American schools. “The variance in American schools is higher than in most countries,” he said. “We have the technology and knowledge to educate children at high levels. But it’s really a question of will.”

The United States has the challenge of educating a more diverse student population than those of some other countries with high student achievement, such as Japan, Mr. Reimers said, but he added that such a challenge is not an excuse for some of this country’s poor educational results.

“We’re the richest nation in the world, and we should be able to deal with that,” he said.

High per-pupil funding in the United States translates into at least one tangible classroom resource. American students in the United States have the best access to computers at school among the countries studied. In the United States, the ratio is five students to every computer, while the average student-to-computer ratio for OECD countries is 13-to-1.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as U.S. Lagging in Graduation Rate, Report Says

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