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CONDITION OF EDUCATION 2012: Report Includes Special Focus on High Schools, Finds that One-Quarter of High Schools Are “Low-Retention”

According to the report, distance education courses are “credit-granting, technology-delivered, have either the instructor in a different location than the students, and/or have the course content delivered in, or delivered from, a different location than of the students.”

In addition to summarizing important developments and trends in education using the latest available data, The Condition of Education 2012, issued annually by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), includes a special section that provides a closer look at high schools in the United States over the past twenty years.

In its analysis of high school completion, the report uses several different measures, including the number of high schools that are considered “low-retention.” In these high schools, the senior class is 70 percent or less than the size of the freshman class that entered four years earlier.1  In School Year 1990–91, 3,112 regular public high schools (24 percent) were considered low-retention. As shown in the chart above, that number increased to 4,581 high schools (32.4 percent) in SY 2000–01 before dropping slightly to 4,096 high schools (26.4 percent) in SY 2009–10.

The report also examines trends in the status dropout rate, which represents the percentage of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (i.e., diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate). It finds that the overall status dropout rate declined from 12 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2010. Most notably, the status dropout rate for Hispanic students fell from 32 percent to 15 percent. Even with the decrease, however, Hispanic students continue to have a higher status dropout rate than white students (5 percent) and African Americans (8 percent).

The final completion statistic the report examines is Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR), which is based on a ratio of diplomas conferred compared to an incoming freshman class from four years earlier. The report notes that the national AFGR increased from 73.7 percent in SY 1990–91 to 75.5 percent in SY 2008–09. During that time, thirty states saw an increase in their AFGR, including Vermont, which saw a 10-percentage-point increase. Twenty states saw their AFGR decline by more than 5 percentage points, including New Mexico (5.3 percentage points), Wyoming (6.0 percentage points), and Nevada (20.7 percentage points).

In addition to high school completion data, the report includes significant data on high school enrollment, finding large increases in enrollment from the SY 1990–91 until SY 2010–11, followed by a period of slower growth that is driven largely by increases in the number of Hispanic students. According to the report, enrollment in grades nine through twelve increased from 11.3 million in SY 1990–91 to 15 million in SY 2010–11. By SY 2021–22, high school enrollment is projected to grow only slightly to 15.5 million.

By SY 2021–22, the report projects that white students will account for only 53 percent of the enrollment in grades nine through twelve, down from 67 percent in SY 1995–96. As shown in the graph below, enrollment for African American students will remain steady at around 16 percent, while enrollment of Hispanic students will grow dramatically from 12 percent to 23 percent. The percentage of Asian students is expected to increase from 4 percent to 7 percent.

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In its analysis of course-taking habits of high school seniors, the report finds that the percentage of high school graduates from the Class of 2009 who took science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes was higher than their peers from the Class of 1990 in nearly every subject studied, including geometry, Algebra II, biology, chemistry, and physics. The only subject in which a decrease was identified was Algebra I, which fell from 77 percent in 1990 to 69 percent in 2009. The report attributes the decrease to more students from the Class of 2009 taking Algebra I prior to high school.

The report also examines the explosion in the number of students enrolling in distance education courses. According to the report, distance education courses are “credit-granting, technology-delivered, have either the instructor in a different location than the students, and/or have the course content delivered in, or delivered from, a different location than of the students.” In SY 2002–03, there were 222,000 high school students enrolled in digital courses; by SY 2009–10, that number had grown to 1.3 million. Among school districts, 53 percent had some high school students who were enrolled in distance education courses in SY 2009–10.

The report also examines increases in the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in postsecondary education in the fall after graduation and the growing gap between male and female graduates in the pursuit of higher education. According to the report, the percentage of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in a two- or four-year college increased from 60 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2010. A significant gap was identified between the percentage of students from low-income families (52 percent) electing higher education compared to those from high-income families (82 percent).

More troubling could be the slowing rate at which males pursue higher education after high school compared to their female counterparts. According to the report, 62 percent of females enrolled in higher education immediately after high school graduation in 1990 compared to 58 percent of males—a gap of 4 percent. In 2010, however, 74 percent of females pursued higher education compared to only 63 percent of males—a much larger gap of 11 percent. The pattern continued for students who planned to graduate from a four-year college, with 53 percent of males planning to do so in 2010 versus 66 percent of females—a gap of 13 percent in 2010 compared to a 5 percent gap that existed in 1990.

The Condition of Education 2012 includes various high school student achievement data, including the 2008 long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the main NAEP tests in civics, geography, and history, and the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment. It also examines high school attendance and its impact on student achievement, school safety, and extracurricular activities and work. For example, it finds that the percentage of students participating in extracurricular activities changed little between 1990 and 2010, with the exception of sports, in which participation increased from 36 percent to 40 percent. What did change during that time, however, was the percentage of students aged sixteen or older who were employed, which fell from nearly one-third (32 percent) in 1990 to just 16 percent in 2010.

In total, The Condition of Education 2012 includes forty-nine indicators of important developments and trends in U.S. education based on data that was available by March 2012, including participation rates in education, elementary and secondary education and outcomes, and postsecondary education and outcomes.

Download the complete report at

Low-retention high schools should not be confused with low-performing high schools, also known as “dropout factories,” in which 60 percent or less of students graduate within four years. 

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