U.S. High School Graduation Rate Hits Historic High

The U.S. high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent as states have made steady progress over the past 10 years. But those gains have been uneven and more needs to be done, education leaders and analysts say.
by | April 28, 2014 AT 5:00 PM

The U.S. high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent for the first time ever and is on track to reach a long-sought goal of 90 percent by 2020, according to newly released federal data and a report from a coalition of groups focused on boosting graduation rates.

Education leaders hailed the ten-percent increase over the last decade as marked progress and highlighted particularly strong gains among minority students, but they also noted the disparities that exist between states and persistently lower graduation rates in the nation’s major cities.

“Fundamentally, public schools were invented as tools of equity and opportunity, regardless of place of birth,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an event hosted by Building a GradNation, a group of organizations dedicated to raising graduation rates. “However, today opportunity is in no way equally distributed across the country.”

The National Center for Education Statistics’ report included graduation and drop-out rates for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate estimates the number of students who graduated in four years divided by the number of students who enter in grade 9 plus any students who transfer into the cohort in grades 9–12 minus any students who are removed from the cohort because they transferred out, moved out of the country, or were died. The U.S. Department of Education first released common, more rigorous national figures in 2012.

The gains translate to 1.7 million more graduates over the past decade and a 1.3-percent rate of increase per year on average. Gains among black and Hispanic students have propelled graduation rate increases since 2006, with a 15-point increase for Hispanic students and a 9-point increase for black students, according to GradNation’s report. Nationally, the rate among white students is 86 percent. It’s 73 percent among Hispanic students and 69 percent among black students.

GradNation attributes the improvement in graduation rates to greater awareness of the issue, new accountability laws, the closure of underperforming schools, an explosion of "early-warning" systems that flag at-risk students and reforms that have offered both multiple chances to finish high school and different pathways.

But wide disparities remain within states, and large cities have a long way to go. Major metro areas—which have high concentrations of low-income students—have overall graduation rates in the 60s and 50s. There’s great variance between cities, though. Des Moines, Columbus and Houston have overall graduation rates of 79 percent, compared with 50 percent in Minneapolis and 51 percent in Atlanta. GradNation speakers emphasized those results aren’t easily explainable by poverty. Some 75 percent of students in Columbus are poor, for instance, about the same percentage as Detroit, which has a 65 percent graduation rate.

“We have to figure out what is our second act in our big cities,” said Bob Balfanz, co-director of John Hopkins University’s Every Graduates Center.

Overall graduation rates in states range from 59 percent in Nevada to 93 percent in Vermont. A number of states are graduating even low-income students above the 80-percent mark, including Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Tennessee and Indiana. For other states, the graduation rate even among students who aren’t living in poverty stands below 80 percent. Those include Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tennessee in particular has been a leader in raising graduation rates. The state boosted graduation rate 17 percent from 2003 to 2010 and reached 87 percent in 2012.

Duncan and others kept their praise measured, noting that large numbers of American students take remedial classes when they enter college. Rick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the gains are noteworthy, but it’s still clear that many students are finishing high school unprepared for what lies ahead. Different studies have shown 28 to 40 percent of first-time college students enroll in at least one remedial course, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and other reports suggest many U.S. employees lack the skills needed for the contemporary workplace.

“[Improved graduation rates] mean we’re getting you to show up, not be truant, and we’re keeping students in the educational process,” Hess said. “That’s a good thing, but we shouldn’t assume that showing up and getting a diploma means that you’re better educated.”

Public High School Graduation Rates

The following table lists 2011-2012 four-year adjusted cohort graduation rates for public high schools by student race and ethnicity. Please note that data was not reported for Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data State Dropout and Graduation Rate Data

For the full report from the U.S Department of Education, see here. For GradNation’s report, see here.