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Some States on Pace to Hit 90 Percent High School Grad. Rate by 2020

A 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 was a lofty goal set by the Grad Nation campaign in 2010. But the latest report from the coalition of education organizations shows that, with a 78.2 percent four-year graduation rate in 2010, the pace of improvement is picking up—putting some U.S. states on track to meet that goal if the progress continues.

Since 2001, the national high school graduation rate has risen by 6.5 percentage points from 71.7 percent, growing an average of 1.25 percentage points between 2006 and 2010, according to the 2013 Building a Grad Nation report released today by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, America's Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The campaign notes the new research reveals for the first time if improvements are sustained the 90 percent goal may be reached.

The 4th annual Grad Nation report attributes much of the growth to improved performance by Latino and African-American students. Between 2006 and 2010, the Hispanic graduation rate grew from 61 percent to 71.4 percent, while the graduation rate for black students went up from 59.2 percent to 66.1 percent.

Still, significant disparities remain between the performances of white and minority students. The report notes that the nation's ability to close these gaps will determine whether it meets and maintains a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. For instance, there are 20 states with graduation rates of 66 percent or less for African-American students and 16 states with rates that low for Latinos.

Regionally, gains were pronounced in Southern states. Five of the 10 states with the greatest graduation improvements since 2006 were in the South, as were the seven states with the greatest decline in "dropout factory" high schools.

Overall, 1,424 schools were deemed "dropout factories" in 2011 (those in which 12th grade enrollment is 60 percent or less of 9th grade enrollment three years earlier). This compares with 1,550 in 2010 and 2,007 in 2002. There has been a reduction of 29 percent since 2002, meaning 1.1 million fewer students attended such low-performing schools.

"It's exciting to see that the nation's collective efforts are working," said Robert Balfanz, a co-author of the Grad Nation report and a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in a press release. "Because of this work, 200,000 more students graduated high school in 2010 than if the graduation rate had not improved since 2006. But for the country to reach its 2020 graduation goal, the states that aren't on pace need to get in the game."

The report reflects substantial differences in state progress.

With their current rate of increase, 18 states are on pace to meet the 2020 goal of 90 percent and another seven have to maintain more than 1 percentage point growth per year to meet the goal, the report found. That leaves 23 states needing to accelerate growth significantly to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

Two states, Wisconsin and Vermont, have already met the goal and lead the nation with graduation rates of 90 percent.

There were 20 states with an average gain of 1 percent or higher each year between 2006 and 2010. Tennessee grew by an annual average of 2.45 percentage points; Louisiana, 2.33; Vermont, 2.28; Alaska, 2.25; and California, 2.25, in that period.

There were nine states where graduation rates remained the same or declined from 2006 to 2010: Montana (unchanged), Utah (unchanged), Hawaii (-0.02), Delaware (-0.20), Rhode Island (-0.35), South Dakota (-0.68), Nebraska (-0.80), Arkansas (-1.35), and Connecticut (-1.68).

States that led the nation in "dropout factory" declines were Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. There were four states with a decline of more than 20 dropout factories (Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, and California). Nine states increased the number of dropout-factory schools, with Ohio experiencing the largest rise—77—between 2002 and 2011.

The report, "2013 Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic," was written by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The analysis uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for 2011, Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate for 2009-10 and Promoting Power for 2011, a tool created by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

The report's findings will be discussed at the Building a Grad National Summit being held this week in Washington.

9:55 a.m. UPDATE:

The unveiling of the new Grad Nation report in Washington was met with both celebration of progress made and recognition of the challenge ahead to sustain improved high school graduation rates.

The new numbers released today show significant progress in addressing the dropout crisis, said
Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, at the Grad Nation Summit this morning. "It is no longer a silent epidemic. Reform efforts and collaborations are finally paying off," he said. After graduation rates inched up, they "rocketed" between 2006 and 2010, noted Bridgeland. It's particularly striking that student success improved so much during a time when it became harder to graduate because of new requirements to pass high school exit exams and ramped-up curriculum standards, he said.

Bridgeland attributed the progress to a combination of better data, more accountability, new federal and state policies, breaking up large high schools with low graduation rates, and a focus on helping 9th graders. Middle school reform, attention to chronic absenteeism, and development of early-warning systems also are helping more students graduate.

The gains among minority students were highlighted by Balfanz of Johns Hopkins, who noted that graduation rates in recent years increased for Latino and African-American students three- to four-times faster than for white students. Still many students who are not getting a diploma are concentrated in the poorest-performing schools. He said it was shocking to learn in 2002 that half of African-American students attended a "dropout factory," and while still a "national tragedy," it is encouraging that the proportion has dropped to 25 percent of black students attending such a school. "It does show that efforts paying attention to this make a difference," said Balfanz.

Many states that are struggling to make advances in high school graduation rates are those with high-minority populations. The researchers noted that progress needs to be ramped up in states such as California, Florida, and Georgia if the nation as a whole is going to make the 90 percent graduation goal by 2020. This year's report also shows poor performance in graduating students with disabilities and those whose second language is English.

In her remarks at the gathering, former first lady Laura Bush applauded the campaign for its work and outlined her ongoing work with education reform. The Bush Institute's Middle School Matters initiative aims to better prepare students for success in high school by sharing best practices at the middle school level. Too often, many students essentially drop out in middle school although they technically leave in high school. More needs to be done, noted Bush, to share research-based ideas to transform middle schools. This summer, the institute will hold an online training session for middle school educators to do just that and provide ongoing support to a few middle schools.

"The education challenges we face in America are great, but greater still is our love for our children," said Bush, who offered words of encouragement to the 800 policymakers, business leaders, and educators attending the summit. "The work you are doing today can make all the difference in the world."


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