Why Are High School Graduation Rates on the Rise?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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America's high schools might be getting back on the graduation track. A new report presented Monday at the Grad Nation summit in Washington D.C., indicates the nation's high school dropout crisis is on the decline.

In 2002, just more than 2,000 high schools were identified as dropout factories, defined by graduating less than 60 percent of students on time. But according to the report, which was sponsored by several education and child advocacy organizations, that number had dropped to 1,550 schools by 2010.

In the past year and a half, about half of all states improved their graduation rates, with 12 of them—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin—making the most progress. In 2009, those states accounted for 104,000 of the nation’s 134,000 extra graduates.

What's making the difference for these success stories? The report emphasizes there's no silver bullet, attributing the increase in graduates to the establishment of early warning indicators and intervention systems, efforts to end chronic absenteeism, and a focus on ensuring students can read proficiently by the time they reach fourth grade.

Nine states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Utah—were outliers to the nation's progress, recording lower overall high school graduation rates in 2009 than in 2002. And despite the success, the national graduation rate is only expected to reach 80 percent by 2020, well shy of the 90 percent goal set by Grad Nation.

There's a strong economic imperative to ensure every state reaches that goal: According to the report, if every high school met the 90 percent mark, an additional 580,000 students would have received diplomas in 2011. In economic terms, that would boost GDP by $6.6 billion, and generate an additional $1.8 billion in economic revenue.

The report concludes that achieving that goal requires improving programs and initiatives with proven track records, redesigning middle schools to better address students' social, emotional, and academic needs, and boosting the kinds of “sustained and quality adult and peer support” kids need. If we commit to those priorities, we could consign the dropout factory to the history books.

Photo via (cc) via Flickr user dcJohn