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US high school graduation rate climbs to 69.2 percent

From 1996 to 2006, rates exceeded expectations in many poor, urban districts, a new report finds.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2009

When high school seniors finally grasp their hard-earned diplomas, an average of 3 out of 10 classmates aren't beside them. In some communities in the United States, more than half of high-school students don't make it to graduation.

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But despite the complex, stubborn problems behind those numbers, a new report shows a decade's worth of modest gains in graduation rates. In 1996, the national on-time graduation rate was 66.4 percent; by 2006, that figure had risen to 69.2 percent. Much greater gains were made by thousands of school districts, including some struggling with high levels of poverty.

The district-by-district analysis is part of "Diplomas Count 2009," the fourth annual report on graduation rates by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, a nonprofit in Bethesda, Md.

"The good news is that a large number of school districts are making progress in boosting graduation rates, but nationally we're still largely flat-lining ... so [there's] a lot more work to be done," says John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public-policy firm in Washington that has also studied dropouts.

As concerns mount about US competitiveness globally, the calls are becoming more urgent for improving high schools and ensuring that more students are ready to pursue further education or training. President Obama recently called on all Americans to complete at least one year of education beyond high school and cautioned that "dropping out of high school is no longer an option."

Wide variation

Among states, graduation rates vary widely – from a low of 47.3 percent in Nevada to a high of 82.1 percent in New Jersey, according to the "Diplomas Count" study. Gaps have also persisted among subgroups of students: Non-Hispanic whites gained 4 percentage points in the decade examined, rising to a graduation rate of 76.1 percent; the Hispanic rate rose 1.7 points, to 55 percent; the rate among blacks rose 2.4 points, to 51.2 percent.

Still, researchers see reason for cautious optimism. "The gains are strongest in the places where they're really needed most...: high-poverty areas, big cities," says Christopher Swanson, director of the EPE Research Center. "The more disadvantaged communities are improving about 50 percent faster than the more advantaged communities."

"Diplomas Count" computes the percentage of public school students who graduate with a standard high school diploma in four years by using a method known as the Cumulative Promotion Index, which enables comparisons across all districts. The research was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some districts beat expectations

For the first time, the report highlights urban districts that have achieved higher graduation rates than their demographic characteristics would predict (see graphic).