Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on what accounts for a national rise in high school graduation rates and why the increase has raised some questions about inflation in how schools report their data. He also explores new tactics educators are using to inspire students to succeed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our series on dropouts and what educators are trying to get more high school students to graduate.
We have spent much time chronicling the problem and looking at different approaches that make a difference. There's been better news to report of late, but with graduation season coming soon, there are also questions about what's behind the numbers.
The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, has the story for our American Graduate project.
JOHN MERROW: It's graduation day for the high school class of 2012 at College Career Tech Academy in Pharr, Texas. Graduation rates have been rising here. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Education report, they have been going up all across the country.
The latest data show the high school graduation rate has risen to 78.2 percent. That's a 5 percentage point jump in just four years after flatlining for almost 40.
ROBERT BALFANZ, Johns Hopkins University: The nation's improvement over the last four or five years has actually been driven by the kids who have the highest dropout rates.
So, the rates are up the most among Latino, Hispanic students. They have actually had a 10-point gain over that five-year period. African-Americans are up about 6.5 points. And the white rate's only up a couple of points.
JOHN MERROW: Bob Balfanz is a leading expert on high school dropouts.
ROBERT BALFANZ: We're actually, for the first time in 40 years, seeing real progress at improving the nation's graduation rate.
JOHN MERROW: The gains are remarkable, but can the numbers be trusted? In the past, some school systems, including this one in Orlando, Florida, have played fast and loose with the numbers, labeling dropouts as transfers and advising low-performing students like Joel Martinez to leave school to get a GED.
JOEL MARTINEZ, Student: In school, we heard a lot: The GED is a lot quicker. You have less problems. You don't have to worry about high school credits. You don't have to worry about this, you don't have to worry about that. You go, take your test, get your GED, and you're done.
JOHN MERROW: According to a 2005 report by The Education Trust, at least one state, New Mexico, calculated graduation rates based only on the number of seniors who graduated. They didn't count the ninth, 10th and 11th graders who dropped out.
Balfanz says some schools and states are still finding ways to inflate their numbers.
ROBERT BALFANZ: We find in some states a number of 11th and 12th graders suddenly going to homeschooling. And then you push deeper, and you find that half those kids are over age for grade.
JOHN MERROW: Balfanz says that because some states, Indiana, for example, try to keep kids in school by taking away their drivers licenses if they drop out, but then they offer homeschooling as a way out.
ROBERT BALFANZ: You get to keep your driver's license if you can just say I'm going to be -- my parents agree I will be homeschooled, as opposed to, I'm dropping out of school because I'm not succeeding.
JOHN MERROW: Russell Rumberger of U.C.-Santa Barbara says many California school districts have created alternative school systems for low-performing students, a kind of parallel universe.
RUSSELL RUMBERGER, University of California, Santa Barbara: If a school wants to raise their performance levels, either test scores or grad rates, and they have students who are low-achieving who will drag them down, then one -- one alternative they have is to transfer them into an alternative system that either is run by them, their own -- the district itself, or outside the districts.
JOHN MERROW: Some schools offer students who are failing or have dropped out an opportunity to make up missing credits by taking courses online.
RUSSELL RUMBERGER: It may be legitimate in terms of how it actually -- technically, how it works, but it's questionable of -- of its qualities.
JOHN MERROW: These so-called credit recovery courses allow students to proceed at their own pace.
RUSSELL RUMBERGER: Somebody that worked in my office with her son where he I think made up a semester grade in about six days, in about 12 hours of work.
JOHN MERROW: Are these improved graduation rates, have they been influenced by the growth of credit recovery?
RUSSELL RUMBERGER: Well, I probably -- I would suspect they are, but I don't -- it's hard to quantify how much so.
JOHN MERROW: While some graduation numbers in some schools may still be questionable, both Rumberger and Balfanz say the recent improvement is real. They say, in 2005, political pressure forced all states to count graduates the same way, how many enter ninth grade and how many graduate.
ROBERT BALFANZ: About 2005, Mark Warner made it the year of the high school. And the -- and the nation's governors actually signed a compact to say we are all going to measure graduation rates the same way, because, before that, everybody measured it differently, so we couldn't really know where we're at.
JOHN MERROW: The country began paying serious attention to graduation rates in 2006, a national study called "Dropouts: The Silent Epidemic."
Time magazine made the issue a cover story, and states took action. Over the past years, the "NewsHour" has looked at several reforms that have helped push graduation rates up. One of the most important was closing dropout factories, large high schools with huge dropout rates.
ROBERT BALFANZ: The pattern these students would take in these schools was very routine, very predictable and very efficient, like a factory.
So, the basic story is they would come into high school many multiple years behind grade level. Many of them would fail their courses. The school system would say, well, try it again under the same circumstances. They might do a short time in an alternative and then drop out. And to us, that seemed very routine, very factory-like.
JOHN MERROW: The number of dropout factories is down, from about 2,000 back in 2002 to just over 1,400 today.
ROBERT BALFANZ: People recognized, from our research and others, that it was this subset of high schools, that 10 percent of high schools more or less, 10 percent, 12 percent were producing half the dropouts, which made it seem like a targeted, solvable problem.
JOHN MERROW: Another reason for the rise in graduation rates, some districts have adopted proven strategies like smaller schools, where everyone knows your name.
TANYA JOHN, High School for Violin and Dance: We give students opportunities who haven't had the chance for the arts.
JOHN MERROW: In 2010, Tanya John was the principal of the High School for Violin and Dance, one of about 100 theme-based small schools in New York City. Graduation rates tend to be higher at small schools. Halfway across the country in Texas, a district is keeping bored kids in high school by letting them attend college at the same time.
DANIEL KING, Superintendent, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District: What we're looking at doing is doing education in a different way, where the colleges come together with us and start working with these young people while they are still in high school.
JOHN MERROW: Before superintendent Daniel King began the college program, many students dropped out to get jobs. Now they see a clear path to a better future.
Jonathan Sanchez (ph) is a senior.
JONATHAN SANCHEZ, Student: I'm taking business computer systems. I'm taking medical billing, like, I want to be certified in it. I'm taking an OSHA course. There's, like, so much going on, like, it feels like my brain is being occupied the whole time.
ROBERT BALFANZ: For many kids to really believe schooling is going to lead somewhere, you have got to have really strong pathways to adult success. And that's different possibilities depending on where you're at.
JOHN MERROW: Multiple pathways?
ROBERT BALFANZ: Different. So, some could lead to college. Some could lead to really solid job training opportunities that lead to a job, some to community college and then a technical job.
JOHN MERROW: Graduation rates are also up at Shelbyville High School in Indiana. Shelbyville was the focus of that "TIME" magazine article on dropouts. The story was a wakeup call. School administrators now keep careful track of every student and intervene at the first sign of trouble.
ROBERT BALFANZ: They had a big data room where they had the kids coded by green, yellow, red, and figure out what their needs are. And they have driven their graduation rates up to 90 percent now.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That is a goal we can meet.
JOHN MERROW: To reach that goal, experts say the high school graduation rate has to jump significantly. That may not happen soon. That's because 45 states have adopted new, more challenging academic standards called the Common Core. They go into effect next school year.
ROBERT BALFANZ: The Common Core is going to make the ninth grade harder. And all the evidence says that the kids are up to the -- up to the task if we combine making the ninth grade harder with additional supports and school redesign.
JOHN MERROW: That's a big if. Given current budget constraints, many schools may not be able to provide that support. And if they don't, the rising graduation rates of recent years are likely to decline.
JEFFREY BROWN: John's report was part of the American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.