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NATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATE FALLS BELOW 70 PERCENT: Diplomas Count 2009 Finds Rate Fell Nearly 1.5 Percentage Points

“As a nation, we have a long way to go in order to reconcile the goal of raising college attendance and completion rates with troubling data on the proportion of U.S. students who graduate from high schools in the traditional four-year time span.”

From 1996 to 2005, the national high school graduation rate increased from 66.4 percent in 1996 to 70.6. However, from 2005 to 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, the rate fell by 1.4 percentage points. The decrease for the Class of 2006 marks the first significant annual decline in more than a decade, according to an analysis of high school completion by the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, which recently published its findings in Diplomas Count 2009.

According to the report, the national graduation rate for the Class of 2006 was 69.2 percent, but rates were much lower for certain minority students. On average, Asian students graduated at a rate of 78.9 percent, compared to 76.1 percent for whites, 55 percent for Hispanics, 51.2 percent for African Americans, and 50 percent for American Indians. For each student group, the graduation rate for the Class of 2006 was lower than the Class of 2005, as indicated in the graph below.

national HS

Source: EPE Research Center, 2009

“As a nation, we have a long way to go in order to reconcile the goal of raising college attendance and completion rates with troubling data on the proportion of U.S. students who graduate from high schools in the traditional four-year time span,” said EPE Research Center Director Christopher B. Swanson. “The rates are generally not as high as we would like them to be, and the pace of improvement needs to be much faster.”

The report also provides an estimate of the high school graduation rate for each state and the District of Columbia, as well as historical data that shows how much a state has improved (or worsened) since 1996. There was a great deal of variation in the estimated graduation rates for the states, ranging from a high of 82.1 percent in New Jersey, 81.7 percent in Wisconsin, and 80.7 percent in Iowa, to a low of 47.3 percent in Nevada and 49.7 in the District of Columbia. Not as much variation was found in the change in graduation rates from 1996 to 2006. In fact, thirty-three out of fifty states had a change of five percentage points or less in their graduation rate. However, as indicated in the table below, some states saw a dramatic increase or decrease in their graduation rate.


Class of 1996

Class of 2005

Change from 1996 to 2005(percentage points)


Class of 1996

Class of 2005

Change from 1996 to 2005 (percentage points)

South Carolina









































As states begin to develop sophisticated data systems that can track students throughout their educational career, some individuals have begun to question the high school graduation rate estimates provided in Diplomas Count. In an article in the Washington PostCharles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, was quoted as saying that the graduation rate is “something we’re working on,” but took issue with the methodology in Diplomas Count. As evidence, he pointed to the 82 percent graduation rate that Virginia reported for the Class of 2008. Because it assigns an individual student identifier to every student, Virginia is able to track students throughout their high school career.

According to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), forty-eight states currently assign a unique statewide student identifier to every student in Pre-K–12. However, the DQC also finds that only twenty-six states plan to report graduation rates in 2009 using the common graduation rate calculation that the nation’s governors agreed to several years earlier.1 Until every state reports high school graduates using this common calculation, estimates such as those in Diplomas Count will remain one of the few ways to compare results across state lines.

Diplomas Count 2009, data on state and school district graduation rates, and EdWeek Maps, which allows users to zoom in on states and access detailed data for every school district and high school in the nation, are available at

1) In 2004, to encourage states to improve their graduation rate calculations and build political support for such decisions, the National Governors Association (NGA) developed the NGA Graduation Rate Compact—an agreement that signatories would calculate and report a commonly defined graduation rate. The rate, known as a four-year adjusted cohort rate, is based on individual student data and measures the percent of entering ninth graders who graduate in four years or less with a regular diploma. Read Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, a policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education for more information on the NGA Compact and the ways that states calculate their graduation rates.

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