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GOOD NEWS FOR GRADUATION RATES: Nation’s High School Graduation Rate Highest Since 1974

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“After three decades of stagnation, the on-time graduation rate for high school students in the 2009–10 school year is the highest it’s been since at least 1974. It’s encouraging that the on-time graduation rate is up substantially from four years earlier. And it’s promising that high school graduation rates are up for all ethnic groups in 2010—especially for Hispanics, whose graduation rate has jumped almost 10 points since 2006.”

On January 22, the U.S. Department of Education released new data showing that the nation’s high school graduation rate rose 2.7 percentage points to 78.2 percent, the highest level in more than three decades based on a measurement called Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR). The data is contained in Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009–10, a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

“The new NCES report is good news,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “After three decades of stagnation, the on-time graduation rate for high school students in the 2009–10 school year is the highest it’s been since at least 1974. It’s encouraging that the on-time graduation rate is up substantially from four years earlier. And it’s promising that high school graduation rates are up for all ethnic groups in 2010—especially for Hispanics, whose graduation rate has jumped almost 10 points since 2006.”

According to the report, Asian/Pacific Islanders have the highest AFGR (93.5 percent), followed by white (83.0 percent), Hispanic (71.4 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native (69.1 percent), and black students (66.1 percent).

As shown in the table below, the highest-performing states were Vermont and Wisconsin, which both posted AFGRs over 90 percent. At the other end of the spectrum were Nevada and the District of Columbia, both with AFGRs below 60 percent.

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Although high school graduation rates for students of color are on the rise, even some of the highest-performing states had significant graduation rate gaps. In Wisconsin, for example, the AFGR was 95.6 percent for white students, but it was only 66 percent for black students, demonstrating a gap of nearly 30 percentage points. In Minnesota, the AFGR for Hispanic students (66.7 percent) trailed that of white students (92.3 percent) by more than 25 percentage points.

The report identifies some bright spots for students of color. For example, both Iowa (86.3 percent) and New Hampshire (89.9 percent) posted AFGRs over 85 percent for Hispanic students. And in Arizona, the AFGR for black students (81.0 percent) was the highest in the nation.

The report also includes data on high school dropout rates. For the nation, it pegs the overall dropout rate at 3.4 percent for the 2009–10 school year. However, as pointed out in a March 2009 Alliance for Excellent Education report, Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, dropout data is “notoriously unreliable” because it often requires dropouts to report that they are dropping out of school. Additionally, several other factors prevent a student from being counted as a dropout. According to the NCES report, students are not counted as dropouts if they (1) transfer to another public school district, private school, or state- or district-approved education program; (2) are temporary absent due to suspension or school-approved illness; or (3) die.

AFGR vs. ACGR Explained

The graduation rate data in the NCES report is based on the AFGR, which is an estimate of the percentage of high school students who graduate within four years after starting ninth grade. The report notes that while the AFGR is not as accurate as four-year graduation rates that are based individual student data, such as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), the AFGR can be computed with currently available data.

Until recently, most states lacked data systems that captured individual public school student-level data over time. For the first time in 2012, however, the U.S. Department of Education has collected a more precise four-year graduation rate across most states called ACGR. Even with the availability of the ACGR, the department will continue to report AFGR because it is possible to analyze trends going back to at least the 1960s. ACGR, on the other hand, only became available for the graduating class of 2011.

The complete report is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013309.pdf.

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