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.
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."
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).
In the Texarkana Independent School District, Texas, 79 percent graduated on time in 2006. Six in 10 of the district's 6,660 students come from low-income families, and more than half are racial or ethnic minorities. District officials credit everything from a focus on early education to alternative paths for high-schoolers on the verge of dropping out.
"We are concerned about graduation rates, but ... we home in on the academic skills of each child and how can we help each child be successful, and ... then our graduation rate will go up," says Ronnie Thompson, assistant superintendent for school improvement. One goal has been to help disadvantaged students catch up in reading by third grade, "because that, we know, is an equalizing factor for the rest of their lives," he says.
An effort to forge strong relationships between students and adults has been one key to the 81 percent graduation rate in Warren Township, Indianapolis, says superintendent Peggy Hinckley. Nearly 4,000 students attend the district's diverse high school, where for many years there's been a campaign focused on respect. In addition to helping students' academic performance, the school has a program called "JAMS: Jobs, Apprenticeships, Military Service, or School."
"We really have focused on getting kids to the notion that it's not just a high school diploma, it's what you're going to do beyond that – so they have a plan," Ms. Hinckley says.
That level of confidence in students isn't universal, however. In a new study by Civic Enterprises, "significant majorities of both the teachers (75 percent) and principals (66 percent) didn't believe students at risk of dropping out would work harder if more were demanded of them," Mr. Bridgeland says. By contrast, the group's landmark 2006 report on dropouts' own views found that 66 percent said they would have worked harder if expectations were raised.
Preparing students for college
"Diplomas Count" also examines how states are helping students look ahead by defining "college readiness" as part of their high school standards. Twenty states already do so, and 11 are in the process, with criteria ranging from which courses a student takes to how well he or she scores on standardized tests. Some states also set standards for so-called "soft skills."
"You see a lot of debate over whether we can we raise graduation requirements and graduation rates at the same time," says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based bipartisan coalition of governors and corporate advocates for education reform. He says the answer is yes. "Every time states have raised the bar there's been a temporary slight uptick in the dropout rate, but not a huge one, and it typically falls back down."
Texarkana officials second that idea, noting that their graduation rate improved at a time when Texas was raising standards. Students had to pass minimum skills tests in reading, writing, and math in 1996, while in 2006, much harder requirements existed in English, math, science, and social studies.
"What we want are for more students to earn diplomas that are meaningful, that signify preparation for success after high school," Mr. Cohen says.