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COUNTING ON GRADUATION: Ed Trust Report Examines State Policies on Graduation Rates

“At a time when most middle-class jobs require more than just a high school education, many states seem willing to accept remarkably high dropout rates,” said Anna Habash.

Noting that the new federal regulations are likely to increase transparency around how well states and schools graduate their students, a new report from The Education Trust argues that most state accountability systems still exhibit a “surprising indifference” toward improving high school graduation rates. According to the report, Counting on Graduation, the graduation rate goals that states set under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) range from a low of 50 percent in Nevada to a high of 95 percent in Indiana.

“At a time when most middle-class jobs require more than just a high school education, many states seem willing to accept remarkably high dropout rates,” said Anna Habash, a policy analyst at The Education Trust and author of the report. “It’s as if policymakers haven’t gotten the message that knowledge and skills matter more than ever, not just for young people, but for their states’ economies, and even for our national security.”

Under NCLB, states were given the latitude to set their own graduation rate goals and the amount of annual improvement that was required to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals. But as the report points out, many states have set the bar far too low, making it acceptable to graduate low percentages of students. As the table below indicates, the difference between graduation rate goals among states is as high as 45 percent.

States with the Lowest and Highest Graduation Rate Goals for the Class of 2007


State Graduation Rate Goal State Graduation Rate Goal
Nevada 50% Indiana 95%
New York 55% Iowa 90.3%
Alaska 55.58% Alabama, Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee 90%
Colorado 59.5%
Massachusetts 60%


In addition to low graduation rate goals, states also require very little progress to meet annual improvement objectives. “More than half of all states have set policies that allow schools that have fallen short of the state’s graduation-rate goals merely to make any progress in their graduation rates or not to lose ground from the previous year,” the report reads.

For example, North Carolina, which reported a 70.3 percent graduation rate in 2006, only requires a 0.1 annual graduation rate improvement target. If the state met this minimum improvement target every year, its high schools would not achieve the state’s current overall graduation rate goal of 80 percent until the year 2103. For North Carolina’s African American and Hispanic students, who have graduation rates of 60.8 percent and 52.3, respectively, targets would not be met for another century.

Meanwhile, states such as Delaware, New Mexico, and South Carolina only require that the previous year’s graduation rate be met or exceeded, meaning that the state will hit its annual improvement targets as long as the graduation rate does not decline.

“A number of states have set the bar so low that they are basically telling parents, ‘We’ll meet our goals when your grandchildren’s grandchildren are ready to graduate,’” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “Fortunately, some states are working hard to move the needle on this issue by setting both aggressive goals and targets and providing the necessary supports.”

The report argues that state leaders must both develop a comprehensive set of policies aimed at implementing the new, more accurate calculation required by the U.S. Department of Education and establish an “unequivocal expectation that graduation rates must improve.”

To help states graduate more of their students, the report recommends that state leaders support high-quality data collection, set more rigorous graduation rate goals and improvement targets, and establish as a “high statewide priority” the goal of improving high school graduation rates. It also lists specific actions that a state’s elected and education leaders can take to increase graduation rates.

The complete report is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.