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Raising Graduation Rates: A Series of Data Briefs Progress Toward Increasing National and State Graduation Rates

Raising Graduation Rates: A Series of Data Briefs Progress Toward Increasing National and State Graduation Rates

This is the first in a series of briefs examining the progress in raising high school graduation rates over the past decade. During this period, the prevailing view on high school graduation rates has moved from the belief that essentially everyone who wanted to, or needed to, graduate from high school was doing so to the recognition that in every state there were too many communities and schools where high school graduation was not the norm. Moreover, a widespread national consensus developed that state and national graduation rates were far from where they needed to be to insure success in the 21st century. As awareness of the magnitude, scope and consequences of the nation’s graduation challenge grew in the past decade, many states and communities responded with a call to action and a diversity of attempts to increase graduation rates. Has this made a difference? How far do we still have to go to graduate all students from high school prepared for college, career, and civic life?

Our first data brief looks at progress in raising graduation rates in the nation and its 50 states. Future briefs will look at progress in the nation’s 50 largest cities, and among the high schools with the lowest graduation rates — those schools we identified in prior work as “dropout factories.”

Executive Summary

How great is the nation’s graduation challenge? To meet President Obama’s call to graduate all students from high schools prepared for college, career, and civic life how much progress is needed, in which states, school districts and communities? This is the first in a series of data briefs aimed at answering these fundamental questions. It examines national and statewide progress in raising the high school graduation rate between 2002 and 2006. This is the most recent period for which comparable data across states is available. The period also saw growing awareness of low graduation rates and high dropout rates in many communities across the country, coupled with a marked increase in philanthropic investment and activity among states and school districts, as well as advocacy and social change organizations seeking effective responses to these challenges. What progress have we made?

National Findings
  • The overall national graduation rate remained essentially flat between 2002 and 2006, at approximately 74 percent.
  • This period did see a 3 percentage point improvement in promoting power (i.e., the timely progress of students from 9th to 12th grade). Those gains in promoting power were offset, however, by a 3 percentage point decline in the ratio of seniors to diplomas awarded (i.e., the extent to which 12th graders obtain diplomas).
  • There also was a near 10 percent decline in the number of high schools with weak promoting power, that is, the nation’s dropout factories.
  • Overall, 300,000 fewer students attended weak promoting power high schools at the end of 2006 than in 2002. Gains were greatest among minority students.
State Level Findings
  • The mixed national picture is explained by state level trends. Some states and communities made substantial progress; others lost ground; most others mirrored the overall national trend of essentially flat rates.
  • Eighteen states posted gains in their graduation rates between 2002 and 2006 and in twelve states, which can serve as models for the nation, the gains were substantial.
  • Gains in these states ranged from an 11.2 percentage point gain in Tennessee to a 3.0 percentage point gain in New Hampshire. The 12 states (listed from largest to smallest gains) are: Tennessee, Delaware, Kentucky, South Dakota, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, New York, Hawaii, Missouri, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.
  • Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, New York and North Carolina stand out as states that made good gains, produced significantly more graduates in 2006 than 2002 and saw a decline in the number of high schools with weak promoting power (the nation’s dropout factories) and a gain in the number of high schools with high promoting power. This progress, however, must be tempered with the acknowledgement that except for Kentucky all of these states still have overall graduation rates below the national average.
  • There is wide variation across the states in the implementation of many key policy reforms advocated over the past decade. States that made improvements do not appear to share one common set of policies or practices, but all are implementing some key reforms.

Results from 2002 to 2006 indicate that in order to meet its graduation challenge the nation will need a more comprehensive approach involving federal, state, community and school projects along with the active support of parents, teachers, and students.

Download the Full Report

Download the full report, first in a series of data briefs, available here in pdf.

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