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DIPLOMAS COUNT: New Report Finds High School Students Today Graduate at About the Same Rate as in the Early 1960s

“The continuing decline in the nation’s graduation rate is very troubling in light of the muscular response mounted around the dropout crisis in recent years.”

Nearly 1.3 million students from the Class of 2010 will fail to graduate with their classmates, according to a new analysis from the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center. The report, Diplomas Count 2010: Graduation By the Numbers—Putting Data to Work for Student Success, pegs the national graduation rate at 68.8 percent, which represents a slight drop (0.4 percent) from the 69.2 percent graduation rate reported last year.

“The continuing decline in the nation’s graduation rate is very troubling in light of the muscular response mounted around the dropout crisis in recent years,” said EPE vice president Christopher B. Swanson. “Stalled progress on a nationwide scale speaks at least as much to the deep and broad roots of the dropout problem as it does to the strength of our collective response.”

Diploma’s Count 2010 traces high school graduation rates all the way back to 1870 when only 2 percent of American seventeen-year-olds possessed a secondary level education. According to the analysis, it was not until 1940 that the graduation rate surpassed 50 percent for the first time and, continuing its climb, reached a historical high point in 1969 when it peaked at 77 percent.

In the decades following, the report notes, the graduation rate “eroded incrementally at certain times and fell significantly at others, including a sharp drop during the first half of the 1990s.” As indicated in the image below, the nation made some progress between the late 1990s and 2005, but after two consecutive declines, now graduates students at about the same rate as it did in the early 1960s. (Click on the image below to enlarge it.)


diplomas count


Female students, with a graduation rate of 72.9 percent, received their diplomas at a higher rate than males, who graduated at a rate of only 66 percent. When breaking graduation rates down by race and ethnicity, the report finds that Asians (80.7 percent) and whites (76.6 percent) were much more likely to graduate from high school than Hispanics (55.5 percent), blacks (53.7 percent), and American Indians (50.7 percent).

The report notes that the low graduation rates of minority students is especially troubling as the public school population continues to consist of fewer traditionally higher-performing white students and more members of historically underserved groups. It points out that the Hispanic student population, which currently lags 21 percentage points behind whites, has grown by 50 percent in the past decade alone.

“All else being equal, population growth among groups with low average graduation rates will tend to suppress improvements in the overall graduation rates,” the report reads. “Put simply, the challenge of improving high school graduation rates is analogous to swimming upstream against a rapid and generally unfavorable demographic current.”

Diploma’s Count 2010 also breaks graduation rates down at the state level. It finds that five states have graduation rates above 80 percent while seven states and the District of Columbia have graduation rates below 60 percent, as shown in the table below.

Top Five and Bottom Five Graduation Rates by State 

State                        Graduation Rate State Graduation Rate
 New Jersey  83.3%  Nevada  41.8%
 Vermont                                           82.3%  New Mexico and South Carolina  54.9%
 Wisconsin  81.0%  Louisiana  57.4%
 North Dakota  80.9%  Georgia and North Carolina  57.8%
 Iowa  80.2%  District of Columbia  59.5%


When examining graduation rates at the school district level, the report finds that twenty-five of the nation’s roughly 11,000 school districts serving secondary students account for one in every five high school dropouts. These districts, which the report calls the “epicenters of the dropout crisis,” consist of a combination of traditional big-city districts such as New York City and Los Angeles, and large countywide school systems, such as Clark County, Nevada, and Miami-Dade County, Florida. Acknowledging that turning around the lowest-performing school districts will not be easy, the report notes that cutting the dropout rate in half in just those twenty-five districts would yield an additional 128,000 graduates and raise the national graduation rate by 3 percentage points.

As evidence that it is possible for school districts to successfully graduate large percentages of at-risk students, the report offers twenty-one urban districts that “beat the odds.” These districts have demographics similar to those of the nation’s largest urban school systems but possess graduation rates that are 10 percentage points higher than the anticipated rate based on district size, poverty level, and other characteristics. The six school districts with the biggest difference between their expected graduation rate and their actual graduation rate are in the table below.

School District Location Actual
Graduation Rate
Graduation Rate
Newport-Mesa Unified Newport Beach, CA 86% 57% +29
David Douglas Portland, OR 83% 63% +20
Texarkana ISD Texarkana, TX 77% 58% +19
Memphis Memphis, TN 62% 43% +18
Visalia Unified Visalia, CA 74% 56% +18
Jonesboro Jonesboro, AR 80% 63% +18

More information on Diplomas Count 2010 is available at

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