New Report Highlights U.S. Graduation Gains, Decline in ‘Dropout Factories’
Graphic by Allison McCartney
High schools across much of the nation have made significant improvements in graduation rates in the last decade, but progress remains uneven. That’s according to a new report released Monday by a non-profit organization led by former secretary of state Colin Powell.
Overall, 78.2 percent of U.S. students graduated from high school in 2010, a 6.5 percent increase from 2001. The findings are outlined in “Building a Grad Nation,” compiled by Civic Enterprises, America’s Promise Alliance, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University.
The gains were sparked largely by Hispanic and African American students. Hispanics saw the largest increase of high school graduates, up 10 percentage points to 71.4 percent between 2006 and 2010. African American graduation rates climbed from 59.2 percent to 66.1 percent during that same period.
One of the report’s chief authors, John Bridgeland, CEO and President of Civic Enterprises, told the NewsHour that the recent trends could eventually lead to the realization of a goal repeated by every president since George H.W. Bush: to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate nationwide. In 1990, then-President Bush said the country should aim to hit that milestone by the year 2000. Bridgeland said the timeline for reaching that goal is now 2020.
“It’s a ray of hope, it really is,” Bridgeland said of the report’s findings.
However, only two states, Wisconsin and Vermont, currently have graduation rates of 90 percent and that just 18 other states are on pace to reach the 2020 desired benchmark.
Also, despite the recent uptick in Hispanic and African American graduation rates, there remains a sizable graduation gap between white and minority students in many states. Currently, 40 states have double digit graduation gaps between white and African American students. In Minnesota, for example, the graduation gap between white and black students is 35 points, and 33 points between white and Hispanic students.
“The danger is people’s attention will start to wander and they’ll say we can move on to other issues because of the progress we have made, even though that’s the exact opposite message that needs to be conveyed,” said Bridgeland.
There were 20 states that had annual gains of at least one percentage point in graduation rates between 2006 and 2010. Tennessee, Louisiana, Vermont, Alaska and California were the top performers, each increasing their graduation rates by more than two percentage points every year during that period.
But nine states either had their graduation rates remain flat or decline from 2006 to 2010. Arkansas and Connecticut had the worst trends, with graduation rates falling by 1.35 percent and 1.68 percent respectively.
In order for the U.S. to reach the 90 percent graduation goal by 2020, those positive trends would have to continue every year and 23 states would have to “accelerate growth significantly,” according to the report.
The report also examined the number of so-called “dropout factories” — high-schools with senior classes where 60 percent or fewer of the students who started there as freshmen — and found a net decline of 29 percent across the U.S. That resulted in more than one million fewer students attending schools designated a dropout factories in 2011 compared to 2002.
For the man who coined the phrase “dropout factory,” Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, also a co-author of the report, the findings show vast improvements in the educational options for minority groups, especially low-income African Americans.
“One of the most shocking statistics from our research in 2002 was that almost half of African-Americans were attending high schools where graduation was not the norm,” Balfanz said. “That’s now down to 25 percent… so, still not good but a really big change.”
Balfanz pointed to recent reforms that have been successful in the south and some urban areas, which have helped to reverse the negative trends. The report states that cities continue to have the largest number of dropout factories, but that number has declined — 745 in 2011, down from 905 in 2002.
“We can see light at the end of the tunnel,” Balfanz said, “but it’s still a long tunnel with some potholes along the way.”