U.S. on Track to Reach High School Graduation Rate of 90% by 2020

Progress driven by subset of districts and states and by underserved students

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According to the report Building a Grad Nation, the country remains on pace to achieve a 90% graduation rate by the year 2020. High school graduation rates reached a historic high of 81.4% in 2013, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, the report says.

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In a statement released today by America’s Promise Alliance—which is dedicated to making the promise of America real for every child—it was noted that 1.8 million additional students graduated from high school in 2013; 310,000 more graduates will take the country to 90%.

“We are making progress in increasing graduation rates not because of broad demographic and economic trends, but because the leaders of schools, districts, communities, and states are working hard to drive change,” said Robert Balfanz, research scientist and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, in a release. “Now in the third quarter of our 20-year campaign, we are seeing that big progress is possible, even in challenged districts and states.”

The 10 largest states drove much of the increase, including California, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The recent gains have been driven by 125 of the nation’s 500 largest school districts, which serve primarily low-income students of color. But New York, Illinois, Washington, and Arizona, which together educate 15% of the nation’s high school students, have seen rates stagnate or even decline.

Low-income students graduate from high school at a rate nearly 15 percentage points lower than that of middle/high-income students, who have a graduation rate of 88.2%.

States and districts have been working at closing the so-called opportunity gap—which America’s Promise defined in its release as “large disparities in access to resources, services, and experiences for low-income children.”

Latino students have made the greatest gains, improving 4.2 percentage points to 75.2%; African American students increased their graduation rate by 3.7 percentage points, to 70.7 % in 2013. Seven states—California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, and New York—educate about 40% of the African American students in the U.S. Unfortunately, they all have comparatively low graduation rates—in the 60s—for African American students, or have recently seen declines.

The statement identified certain obstacles to graduation for students of color: toxic stress from living in high-poverty neighborhoods; exclusionary discipline practices; and disparities in academic opportunities (fewer, sometimes no challenging classes), among others.

To help more students graduate from high school the report recommends the following:

  • Eradicate zero-tolerance policies.
  • Increase the use of early-warning systems to allow educators to intervene at the earliest times.
  • Train educators to gather, interpret, and use data to help improve student outcomes.
  • Make state funding more equitable.
  • Increase the use of consistent and comparable data to hold states accountable.

“In America, education has always been seen as the pathway out of poverty, but the research in this report shows that is not yet true enough in all locales,” said Alma J. Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance, in a statement. “We have to make it true. We have to do everything possible—inside and outside of our schools—to make the promise of America real for every child.”

For more information about America’s Promise Alliance and its Grad Nation campaign, go to www.AmericasPromise.org.

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