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High School Graduation Rate Improves Over Past Decade; Recent Declines Threaten Progress


Report Identifies Big-City School Districts Beating Graduation Expectations;

 Examines Efforts to Prepare All Students for College


WASHINGTON—June 9, 2009—A new national report from Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center paints a cautiously optimistic picture of high school graduation trends, finding that the national graduation rate has improved over the past decade, though a recent one-year downturn—the first significant annual decline in that 10-year period—raises cause for concern.


Despite overall progress, three out of every 10 students in U.S. public schools still fail to finish high school with a diploma, the report finds. That amounts to 1.3 million students lost from the graduation pipeline every year, or almost 7,200 students lost every day, it adds. The report also points out that there is no firm consensus among states, schools, and policymakers on what it means to be ready for postsecondary education or how to measure college readiness.


The report, Diplomas Count 2009: Broader Horizons: The Challenge of College Readiness for All Students, investigates one of the most critical issues facing the nationÂ’s educational and economic future—the challenge to prepare all students for college. As leaders at all levels of public life call for Americans to engage in some education past high school, Diplomas Count examines this growing movement by:

·         Mapping the policy and reform landscape that defines the college-ready agenda;

·         Profiling one high schoolÂ’s efforts to nurture a college-going culture;

·         Examining how better data and accountability systems can help support readiness initiatives; and

·         Highlighting the cutting-edge efforts of a state working to put actionable information about college preparation in the hands of educators.


This push for college comes amid sobering statistics on the proportion of U.S. students who currently finish high school and on the level of college preparation that comes with a high school diploma. The report—part of a multi-year project supported by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—also tracks graduation policies for all 50 states and presents an updated analysis of graduation rates and trends for the nation, states, and the country’s 50 largest school systems.


“The nation is failing to reach a level necessary to put the United States on a solid footing in a competitive global market,” said EPE Research Center Director Christopher B. Swanson. “However, the longer-term trajectory of change for the country’s graduation rate does offer some reason to be cautiously optimistic.”


A Closer Look at the Numbers

Overall, graduation rates have made slow but steady progress over the last decade, according to an original analysis by the EPE Research Center using its Cumulative Promotion Index method and data from the U.S. Department of Education. Over this period, the nation’s graduation rate increased by almost 3 percentage points, rising from 66.4 percent in 1996 to 69.2 percent in 2006, the most recent year in which data were available. Graduation rates improved, at least marginally, in 34 states during this time, with several—Arizona, South Carolina, and Tennessee—experiencing double-digit gains. Ten states saw drops of at least 1 percentage point, with the largest decline occurring in Nevada.


Long-term improvements can be found for all major demographic groups, though gains have been considerably stronger among non-Hispanic whites than for racial and ethnic minorities. In most respects, progress has been more rapid in areas where graduation rates have historically languished. Conditions have improved much faster in high-poverty school systems, urban communities, larger districts, and in those serving majority-minority student populations.


According to the report2006 marked the first time in the past decade that the nationÂ’s graduation rate has posted a noticeable annual decline, falling more than 1 percentage point from 2005 to 2006. Graduation rates fell nationally for all major racial and ethnic groups. In addition, half of the states showed a measurable drop, signaling that the consistent improvements found for the nation and many states in recent years may be in jeopardy of eroding.


With Native American, Hispanic, and African-American students from the class of 2006 graduating at rates of no more than 55 percent, a graduation gap of as much as 26 percentage points divides these historically underserved minorities from their white peers. A gulf of 35 points separates the highest-performing state in the nation (New Jersey) and the lowest (Nevada). The report also finds great variation across the nationÂ’s 50 largest school districts. Within that group, Detroit had the lowest graduation rate at 26.8 percent, while Cypress-Fairbanks, Texas tops the nation at 80.7 percent.


“As a nation, we have a long way to go in order to reconcile the goal of raising college attendance and completion rates with troubling data on the proportion of U.S. students who graduate from high schools in the traditional four-year time span,” Swanson said. “The rates are generally not as high as we would like them to be, and the pace of improvement needs to be much faster.”


Report Identifies Overachieving Districts


Despite recent downturns, Diplomas Count 2009 finds widespread long-term gains at the district level. From 1996 to 2006, the majority of the nationÂ’s local school systems posted improvements in their levels of high school completion. In fact, graduation rates rose by 15 percentage points or more for about 1,500 districts across the country. 


The EPE Research Center also conducted a special analysis to identify school systems that exceed expectations for current graduation rates or improvements over the past decade. The report finds stellar performance in some of the nation’s most at-risk communities, recognizing 50 “overachieving” big-city school systems from across the country.


Among these top-ranking urban districts, especially strong showings were posted by: Merced Union High School District (Calif.); Sharyland Independent School District (Mission, Texas); Stockton Unified School District (Calif.); Texarkana Independent School District (Texas); and Metropolitan School District of Warren Township (Indianapolis). In each of these districts, both graduation rates for 2006 and graduation-rate improvements from 1996 to 2006 surpassed expected levels by at least 15 percentage points.



Updated Road Map to State Graduation Policies

To provide context for high school graduation rates and reform efforts, Diplomas Count 2009 examines state policies in three key areas: definitions of college and work readiness, high school completion credentials, and exit exams. Among the findings:

·         College and work readiness: Twenty states define what students should know and be able to do to be prepared for credit-bearing courses in college, while 28 states have a definition of work readiness.

·         Advanced diplomas: Twenty-four states award advanced diplomas or some type of formal recognition to students who exceed standard graduation requirements.

·         Exit exams: Twenty-four states require exit exams for the class of 2009, with 20 of those states basing exit exams on standards at the 10th grade level or higher.



Special Web-Only Features Available at

·         State Graduation Briefs for every state, feature detailed state-specific data on current graduation rates and trends over time, definitions of college and work readiness, and state requirements for earning a high school diploma.

·         EdWeek Maps, a powerful online mapping service, lets users access graduation rates and other data for every school district in the nation and easily compare district, state, and national figures at



Visit Diplomas Count at



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Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization based in Bethesda, Md. Its primary mission is to help raise the level of awareness and understanding among professionals and the public of important issues in American education. EPE covers local, state, national, and international news and issues from preschool through the 12th grade. Editorial Projects in Education Inc. publishes Education Week, AmericaÂ’s newspaper of record for precollegiate education, Teacher Magazine,, and the TopSchoolJobs employment resource. It also produces periodic special reports on issues ranging from technology to textbooks, as well as books of special interest to educators.


The EPE Research Center conducts annual policy surveys, collects data, and performs analyses that appear in the Quality CountsTechnology Counts, and Diplomas Count annual reports. The center also produces independent research reports and contributes original data and analysis to special coverage in Education WeekTeacher Magazine, and




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