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High School Graduation Rate Continues to Climb to All-Time High

By Alyson Klein, cross-posted from Politics K-12

The national, four-year graduation rate has ticked up for the second year in a row, growing from 80 percent in the 2011-12 school year, to 81 percent in the 2012-13 school year, according to data released in January by the U.S. Department of Education. (Though the data from the National Center for Education Statistics has been out for almost a month, the official release was Thursday.) 

Most individual states made gains. For instance, the District of Columbia's grad rate grew from 59 percent in the 2011-12 school year to 62 percent in 2012-13. (It's still the lowest in the country, however.) Not every state showed improvement--Arizona dropped from 76 percent in the 2011-12 school year to 75 percent in 2012-13.

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How did poor and minority students do relative to their peers? We can't tell from these numbers. The department hopes to release graduation rates for minority students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners in coming weeks.

So is this really an all-time high for the entire country? It's tough to know for certain.

States were only required to use this particular, uniform method of calculating grad rates beginning in 2008, and it still took a couple years for full implementation. So we only really have this particular data going back to the 2010-11 school year, when the national grad rate was 79 percent. The next year it inched up to 80 percent.

However, it's also worth noting that this graduation metric is the strictest one we've ever had. In the past, states were all over the map in terms of which students they included in the metrics. And some used notoriously shady practices, like only counting seniors when most kids drop out in 9th or 10th grade. Also, in previous generations, under less-stringent graduation metrics, it was generally considered more socially (and economically) acceptable to drop out of school. So the department is probably right in claiming that we've reached an all-time, national high.

NCLB implications?

Even before the official release Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been using the (slight) improvement in grad rates and, in particular, the (modest) progress of special populations of students shown in last year's data to argue that Congress should continue to require stringent accountability in a pending update of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Could the department have been waiting until the day after the House education committee approved a bill that the Obama administration thinks would weaken accountability to trumpet these numbers, which have been out for almost a month?

One the other hand, many folks, including some civil rights groups, would argue that the administration itself has already done plenty to water down accountability for special groups of students through the NCLB waivers, which are currently in place in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.

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