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Graduation Rates Inch Upward, But Achievement Gaps Remain

The four-year graduation rate in the United States ticked upward slightly during the 2011-12 school year, to a historical high of 80 percent, up from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year, according to a report released today by the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education's research arm. 

What's more, minority students, students in special education programs, disadvantaged students, and English-language learners, are making modest gains overall when it comes to on-time graduation rates. But there is still a lot of work to do to help those students catch up with their white and Asian peers. 

Overall, the graduation rate data released today show steady improvement for minority students nationwide, as well as for white and Asian students. For instance, during the 2010-11 school year, American Indian/Alaskan Native Students had an average graduation rate of 65 percent. That rose to 67 percent in the 2011-12 school year. And black students had a graduation rate of 67 percent in 2010-11, which rose to 69 percent in 2011-12. Hispanic students, meanwhile, went from a 71 percent graduation rate in the 2010-11 school year, to a 73 percent rate in 2011-12.

By contrast, white students had a graduation rate of 84 percent in 2010-11, which increased to 86 percent in 2011-12. And Asian students also improved, from an 87 percent graduation rate in 2010-11, to 88 percent in 2011-12.

There were similar improvements for economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and students in special education programs. Those groups had graduation rates of 70 percent, 57 percent, and 59 percent, respectively, in the 2010-11 school year. Each of those groups posted increases in the 2011-12 school year, to 72, 59, and 61 percent, respectively.

There's a huge variance among state graduation rates in the 2011-12 school year, which range from 59 percent in Nevada, to 93 percent for Vermont. And there are some big achievement gaps within states. For instance, Louisiana had an overall graduation rate of 72 percent during the 2011-12 school year—about eight points below the national average of 80 percent—but students in special education were more than 25 points below the national average for that subgroup—at 33 percent. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to discuss the data today at Grad Nation, an event in Washington put together by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, America's Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The groups released their own report examining the data this morning, and found that the United States is on track to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, but to make that happen policymakers will need to continue to focus on low-income students, minorities, and students who live in major urban centers. Read the full report here.

:As a country, we owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers, students and families whose hard work has helped us reach an 80 percent high school graduation rate," Duncan said in a statement released this morning. "But even as we celebrate this remarkable achievement, our students have limitless potential and  we owe it to all of our children to work together so they all can achieve at higher levels."

What is this data? The U.S. Department of Education first released data that track state graduation rates in a uniform, consistent way back in November of 2012. States, under the auspices of the National Governors Association, first agreed to begin tracking graduation rates by looking at four-year cohort graduation rates back in 2005, and the Education Department, under then-Secretary Margaret Spellings, made the reporting a requirement in 2008. Before that, states were all over the map in terms of how they tracked graduation rates, making it difficult to compare outcomes for different groups across different states. (There are still huge variances on how states with waivers from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act factor graduation rates into school accountability. That's raised eyebrows among many of the folks who will be pouring over the IES data today.) 

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