Graduation rate for US high-schoolers falls for second straight year

The graduation rate was 68.8 percent in 2007, according to a new study. But the report also identifies 21 big-city 'overachievers' that posted higher-than-expected graduation rates.

By , Staff writer

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    Graduate Danielle Post humorously displays the good grammar and excellent writing skills she learned all through school on her mortar board as she sits with other graduates during Lake Weir High School graduation in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday. Ms. Post is in shrinking company: The US high-school graduation rate has declined for the second year in a row.
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The national high school graduation rate has slipped in recent years, despite an array of public and private efforts to boost the percentage of students going on to college. But some districts are beating the odds, succeeding with many students who otherwise may have fallen through the cracks.

The percent of students earning a standard diploma in four years shifted from 69.2 percent in 2006 to 68.8 percent in 2007, according to an analysis of the most recent data in “Diplomas Count 2010.” It was the second consecutive year of decline, says the report, which was released Thursday by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, a nonprofit in Bethesda, Md.

That translates to 11,000 fewer graduates in 2007 than in 2006. At its peak in 1969, the national graduation rate was 77 percent.

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“The progress on graduation rates has stalled.... We need to ramp up efforts on ... holding schools accountable and [promoting] interventions that will actually address the problem,” says Lyndsay Pinkus, director of strategic initiatives at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington policy group that promotes high school reform.

On the more hopeful side, the report identifies 21 big-city “overachievers” that posted much higher graduation rates than would be expected based on a range of factors including demographics and poverty. Five such districts outpaced expectations by 18 percentage points or more: Newport-Mesa Unified in California; David Douglas in Portland, Ore.; Texarkana Independent in Texas; Memphis City in Tennessee; and Visalia Unified in California.

At Newport-Mesa, 86 percent graduated within four years, compared with the 57 percent that researchers calculated for the “expected” graduation rate. The district’s 22,000 students cover the gamut of socioeconomic backgrounds in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. About 40 percent are Latino.

“When the school board hired me four years ago ... they said, ‘We don’t want to lose one single student,’ ” says Newport-Mesa superintendent Jeffrey Hubbard. “Students who are struggling in our comprehensive high schools have other alternatives,” he says, including hands-on classes at community colleges, where they can simultaneously work toward an associate’s degree.

Another reason Mr. Hubbard says graduation rates have improved: a collaborative approach to student progress. “We ask ourselves ... what do students need to learn ... and how do we respond if they’re not? [We] really look at whether kids are getting it,” he says.

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.

Racial and ethnic gaps persist, the report notes. Forty-six percent of black students, 44 percent of Latinos, and 49 percent of native Americans did not earn a diploma in four years.

About one-fifth of the nongraduates hail from 25 large school districts, including New York City; Los Angeles; and Clark County, Nev.

The numbers can be important even for families with no children in school, Ms. Pinkus notes. If dropouts were reduced by half in America’s 50 largest cities, the graduates’ extra earnings would add up to about $4.1 billion a year, which would increase state and local tax revenue by as much as $536 million, according to a recent analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

By 2011-12, the US Department of Education will be holding states accountable for progress in four-year graduation rates.

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