Education Good News: HS Graduation Rate Is Rising

Dec 16, 2010

Although high school dropout rates remain high, a new report from America's Promise Alliance shows that the percentage of American students graduating from high school has been climbing since 2002. The report analyzes 'dropout factories' - the schools that produce the most high school dropouts - and offers suggestions on how we can improve graduation rates further to meet President Obama's education goals.

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Turning Around Dropout Factories

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 25 percent of American high school students were dropping out before graduation in 2008 (the last year for which data is available). That's a lot, but it's also a sign of improvement: In 2002, that figure was 28 percent.

So what is the source of the improvement? Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, a recent report from America's Promise Alliance, points to a 13 percent reduction in the number of 'dropout factories,' from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008.

'Dropout factories' are a small percentage of American high schools that produce roughly half of all high school dropouts. Improving these schools is clearly essential for raising graduation rates, and the Alliance report shows that several states have been doing just that. All across the nation, the number of low graduation rate schools declined from 2002 to 2008, with the steepest drop occurring in southern urban areas.

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During this time period, Tennessee achieved the greatest increases in high school graduation rates. In one of several state-level case studies, the Alliance report identified the three main 'levers' the state used to drive improvement:

Setting high and clear expectations.

In 2001, the state legislature passed a law requiring 15 to 18 year olds to stay in school and make progress toward graduation in order to keep their driver's licenses. This law incentivizes students to earn their diplomas, and it supports the state's compulsory attendance age of 17.

Using data effectively to improve teaching and learning.

An educator at the University of Memphis designed America's first 'value-added assessment system,' a longitudinal data system that allows administrators to evaluate school outcomes, including graduation rates and end-of-course assessments in order to measure performance along the way. The Tennessee Department of Education used this data to identify underperforming schools and implement measures that could help them to improve.

Improving Technical Assistance.

A key part of Tennessee's effort to target low-performing schools is the Urban Education Improvement Plan. Launched in 2003, the plan targets the five districts that account for half of the state's most economically disadvantaged students, offering technical assistance with school management, teaching and learning.

As a result of these and similar efforts across the country, 29 states increased their overall graduation rates between 2002 and 2008. The biggest increases were 15 percent in the state of Tennessee and 10 percent in New York City.

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A Civic Marshall Plan

Modeling its efforts on these success stories, the Alliance is launching a 'Civic Marshall Plan.' The plan is named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall's efforts to reconstruct Europe after World War II, and it is intended to meet one of President Obama's education goals for 2020: To raise the high school graduate rate to 90 percent. In order to meet this goal, America's high schools must increase their improvement rates dramatically to an average of 1.5 percentage points per year.

Rather than rebuilding nations, this Marshall Plan will focus on rebuilding schools. For several reasons, the Alliance believes that now is a particularly good time to undertake this project. To name just a few: Graduation rates are now being measured accurately across all schools and states, early warning indicators are increasingly widely used, states have begun to adopt the Common Core Standards and the federal government is investing billions of dollars to support the transformation of the country's low-performing schools.

The plan outlines a series of actions and benchmarks focused on the 'strategic deployment of human resources' that will help achieve its goals:

Calling for action and leadership.

This includes setting measurable, clear and achievable goals, building leadership within a group of educational and other organizations and producing regular reports on challenges and progress.

Establishing a strategic and tiered approach.

The plan starts by targeting dropout factories and the elementary and middle schools that feed them, and then sets a series of benchmarks that must be met in order to achieve national goals. These include increasing the number of students reading at grade level, reducing chronic absenteeism and implementing early warning and intervention systems.

Acting within low graduation rate communities.

The plan outlines several specific actions for communities with the lowest high school graduation rates, including targeting early reading skills, focusing on the middle grades, improving student support with the resources of nonprofits, connecting practitioners and policymakers to researchers and transforming dropout factories.

Building and enabling state and district capacity to improve graduation rates.

Of course, these efforts are most effective when they're implemented on a local level, and the plan includes actions to support states and school districts. These include soliciting input from parents and educators, improving parent engagement, building early warning systems with appropriate interventions, spearheading multi-sector community-based efforts, improving data collection and use on high school and college graduation rates and developing new education plans based on student and community needs. The plan also recommends that Congress reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which provides for extensive local support for failing schools.

Strengthening the public education system to accelerate graduation rates.

At the heart of all these efforts is, of course, improvement in educational quality. Some of the plan's recommendations to achieve this goal include building linked data systems in order to support data-driven decision making, providing more engaging coursework, setting higher academic standards, connecting postsecondary completion goals with high school completion goals and training and support more effective and accountable teachers and principals.

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