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PROGRESS IS NO ACCIDENT: Number of Annual High School Dropouts Falls by 250,000, New Report Finds

The number of high school dropouts decreased from 1 million in 2008 to approximately 750,000 in 2012, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and Everyone Graduates Center. Progress Is No Accident: Why ESEA Can’t Backtrack on High School Graduation Rates also finds that the number of “dropout factories”—high schools where less than 60 percent of students make it to their senior year—declined from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,040 in 2014.Dropout Rate Graph

The report credits the improvement in high school graduation rates to state and local on-the-ground efforts, as well as federal requirements issued in 2008 and 2011 targeted at the dropout crisis—the same requirements that are absent from current efforts to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“Federal policy and local action are working; data and dedication are making diplomas,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, “but with more than 4,000 students still dropping out per school day, now is not the time for the federal government to take its foot off the high school graduation rate pedal.”

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued regulations that had a tremendously positive impact on the national high school graduation rate. In addition to requiring that states use the same, accurate calculation of the high school graduation rate, the regulations required states to set ambitious goals to improve graduation rates and required school districts to intervene in high schools where students from low-income families, students of color, and other traditionally underserved students had consistently low graduation rates. In 2011, ED issued further policy requirements mandating that states intervene in high schools with low graduation rates.

Since the 2008 regulations were issued, the national high school graduation rate increased from 74.7 percent to an all-time high of 80.9 percent and more than one-quarter of a million additional students nationwide received high school diplomas in 2012 compared to 2008.

“From our work with scores of high schools and school districts over the past decade, it’s clear that graduation rate accountability made a huge difference,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center. “There was an absolute sea change in the behavior of principals and school districts when aggressively improving graduation rates came to matter and low-graduation-rate high schools became the focus of reform. The result was a large decline in the number of high schools where dropping out was the norm. These schools were typically attended only by students from low-income families and students of color, and hence, it is the nation’s most vulnerable students who have benefitted most from graduation rate accountability.”

“Every district and school we visit where graduation rates are rising, we hear a similar refrain: an every-student-counts culture with real accountability for progress over time,” says John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises. “This is a core element of the secret sauce to get to a 90 percent graduation rate for all.”

Were the nation to increase the high school graduation rate for just one high school class to 90 percent, the report notes, it would create as many as 65,700 new jobs and increase the national economy by as much as $10.9 billion annually.

“High school graduates earn, on average, $15,000 more annually than dropouts,” Wise said. “That’s great news for the individual graduates, but also for the economy, as additional earnings are not going under a mattress; they will be used to purchase automobiles, homes, groceries, clothing, and more, fueling state and local economies.”

Even with these gains, however, much more work remains. One out of five students still does not graduate from high school on time. Ensuring a steady gain in the national graduation rate means tackling the long-standing graduation rate gaps between white students and students of color and students from low-income families. According to the report, fifteen states have high school graduation rate gaps between African American and white students that are more than 15 percentage points. Twelve states have a gap of 15 percentage points or more between the graduation rates of white and Latino students.

Students of color and students from low-income families also disproportionately attend the more than 1,200 high schools nationwide that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students. For example, African American students make up less than 16 percent of the K–12 population nationwide, but 40 percent of the students in these low-graduation-rate high schools.

“Turning around schools that have struggled for years or even decades is some of the hardest work in all of education,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who participated in a press call about the report with Wise and Balfanz. “And to be clear, they are not improving fast enough, but I am proud of the gains we have seen and believe they point to more progress down the road. The [Alliance’s] paper reinforces that belief. Thanks to the hard work and deep commitment of our nation’s teachers and principals, we are headed in the right direction. But systemic inequities exist that shortchange students in high-poverty, high-minority schools across our country. We can and must do better.”

To preserve the graduation rate gains already made, while also increasing the graduation rates of students who have been traditionally underserved, the report calls on the U.S. Congress to build on the effective policies currently in place while rewriting ESEA to ensure that

  • states are accountable for all high schools that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students;
  • all high schools failing to graduate one-third or more of their students are eligible for federal funding and receive support to implement evidence-based, comprehensive reform; and
  • any high school with a group of traditionally underserved students not meeting a state-set graduation rate goal for two or more years must take action with evidence-based reforms.

“To keep the momentum going, close the graduation gaps that still exist, and reach the GradNation campaign goal, state accountability systems must continue to be a priority,” said John Gomperts, president and chief executive officer of America’s Promise. “Recent gains in graduation rates show us that when states and schools are held accountable and students are given the support they need to stay in school and on track to graduation, real progress is possible.

Progress Is No Accident: Why ESEA Can’t Backtrack on High School Graduation Rates is available at

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