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BUILDING A GRAD NATION: New Report Finds More than Half of States Increased High School Graduation Rate, Number of “Dropout Factory” High Schools Decreased by 23 Percent Since 2002

"The good news is that some states have made improvements in their graduation rates, showing it can be done."

The national high school graduation rate increased from 72.6 percent in 2002 to 75.5 percent in 2009, according to a new report from Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center, America’s Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, finds that twenty-four states increased high school graduation rates by modest to large gains while the number of high schools graduating 60 percent or fewer students on time-often referred to as “dropout factories”-decreased from 2,007 schools in 2002 to 1,550 schools in 2010.

“The good news is that some states have made improvements in their graduation rates, showing it can be done,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and coauthor of the report. “But the data also indicate that if we are to meet our national goals by 2020, we will have to accelerate our rate of progress, particularly in the states that have shown little progress.”

According to the report, six states increased their high school graduation rates as measured by the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) by 7 percentage points or more between 2002 and 2009.1 Tennessee, which increased its graduation rate by 17.8 percentage points (from 59.6 percent to 77.4 percent), had the largest increase, followed by New York (an increase of 13 percentage points), South Carolina (up 8.1 percentage points), Alabama (up 7.8 percentage points), Kentucky (up 7.8 percentage points), and Vermont (up 7.6 percentage points).

Additionally, fourteen states increased their graduation rates by “moderate” amounts (3.0 to 6.9 percentage points) while four states made “modest” gains (2.7 to 2.9 percentage points). On the down side, sixteen states saw little to no progress in their high school graduation rates while ten states saw their graduation rates decline.

Building a Grad Nation identifies thirteen states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington) that have the most work to do to help the nation reach the 90 percent graduation rate goal by 2020.

“In large part the battle will be won or lost in the thirteen states that have the largest number of students to get back on track to graduate,” saidJohn Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises and coauthor of the report. “[These states] need to accelerate their progress two- to three-fold in order to reach [the 2020 goal.]”

If every state had reached the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate, 580,000 additional students would have graduated as part of the Class of 2011, generating more than 37,000 new jobs and increasing the gross domestic product by $6.6 billion, the report finds.

The report also finds that southern states and schools in the suburbs saw the largest declines in the number of dropout factory schools between 2002 and 2009, with 410 and 171 schools, respectively. Texas, which reduced its number of dropout factories by 122 schools between 2002 and 2010 made the greatest progress, followed by Florida (a decrease of 62 schools) and Georgia (a decrease of 54 schools).

“When emergency medical personnel arrive at an accident scene, they immediately deliver treatment to the most severely injured,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Similarly, the nation must focus its attention on the lowest-performing high schools with the largest number of ‘victims’ in the national dropout crisis. The fact that these schools are so widespread and contribute so greatly to the national dropout crisis dictates making them an essential focus of any effort to improve the graduation rate.”

Building a Grad Nation also updates progress made on the ten Civic Marshall Plan benchmarks, such as grade-level reading, chronic absenteeism, early warning systems, and state compulsory school-age requirements. As highlighted by President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address, state laws dictate the minimum and maximum age that all youths must attend school. While the majority of states have a compulsory school age of seventeen or eighteen years of age, eighteen states still legally permit students to leave school at sixteen years of age.

Finally, the report features states and school districts that are making significant gains and shares promising practices from nonprofits, businesses, media, educational, and governmental institutions across the country. It spotlights case studies in Dothan, Alabama; the state of Georgia; Henry Grady High School in Atlanta; Houston; and Washington County Public Schools in Maryland.

“In order to accelerate the progress highlighted in this report, it is critical that we identify the initiatives that are most effective in reducing the dropout rate,” said Charlene Lake, senior vice president of public affairs and chief sustainability officer for AT&T, which sponsored the report with additional support from the Pearson Foundation. “Working together to scale these evidenced-based strategies will be vital to helping our students succeed and meeting our national objectives.”

The complete report is available here.

1 The AFGR provides an estimate of the percentage of high school students who graduate on time. The rate uses aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class and counts of the number of diplomas awarded four years later.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.