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RAISING GRADUATION RATES: New Report Examines National and State Progress Toward Increasing Graduation Rates

“There is wide variation across the states in the implementation of many key policy reforms advocated over the past decade.”

The national high school graduation rate remained essentially flat between 2002 and 2006, rising from 73.6 percent in 2002 to 74.0 percent in 2006, according to a new report from the Everyone Graduates Center, which is located in the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. Although the national graduation rate was unchanged, the report, Raising Graduation Rates: A Series of Data Briefs, finds that eighteen states saw increases in their graduation rates during the time period, including twelve states where gains were substantial.

“There is wide variation across the states in the implementation of many key policy reforms advocated over the past decade,” write the report’s authors, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and Thomas C. West, senior research analyst at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. “States that made improvements do not appear to share one common set of policies or practices, but all are implementing some key reforms.”

The twelve states with the most substantial increase in their graduation rate, as measured by the average freshman graduation rate, are shown in the table below.1


Graduation Rate Gain (Percentage Points)

Graduation Rate (2002)

Graduation Rate (2006)

Net Gain in High School Graduates
















South Dakota















North Carolina





New York




















New Hampshire





United States





The report also focuses on changes in the number of students who attend high schools with weak versus high promoting power.2 It identifies Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, New York, and North Carolina as the states that made good gains in producing graduates and reducing the number of dropout factories within their borders. Although it acknowledges that an examination into why these states improved is beyond its scope, the report does find that these states did not implement a common set of policies or programs.

Indeed, the report finds wide variation across the states in terms of which reforms they implemented over the last decade. For example, the legal dropout age varies from sixteen to eighteen across the twelve states, the number of credits required for graduation ranges from twenty to twenty-four, and only four states require exams for graduation. It also notes that districts within these states differed widely in applying for and winning Small Learning Community (SLC) grants, which the report says is the major federal program that supported high school reform during the relevant time period. The report points out that three of the states with the most significant gains—Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York—also had the greatest number of schools that won SLC grants. The report also finds that Tennessee, Alabama, and New York were able to raise standards, increase accountability, and graduate more students—a finding which would appear to counter arguments that higher standards could lead to more dropouts.

Significant attention is devoted to Tennessee, which, as the report notes, “has not been on the national reform radar screen,” but produced the largest overall graduation rate increase and the second greatest number of additional graduates. The report gives partial credit for these increases to the fact that Tennessee saw a marked decline in the number of students earning special education diplomas and certificates of attendance from 2002 to 2006. It also points out that Memphis and Hamilton County, which adopted district-wide school reform efforts, saw substantial increases in their graduation rates.

Overall, in the case of Tennessee and the other eleven states, the report finds no direct correlation between particular programs or policy changes and higher graduation rates. Instead, it attributes the gains to multiple local and state efforts. “That the twelve states that made the most progress do not appear to have used a common set of practices and policies further points out that context matters and graduation rates are not improved through a single program or policy but, through a multiplicity of efforts at multiple levels within a state,” it reads. “At the same time, the fact that a dozen states did witness significant improvements signals that even when comprehensive efforts to improve graduation rates were not the norm, progress was possible.”

The Graduation Rate Challenge

Using data from the dozen states that made the most progress, as well as from the rest of the fifty states, Balfanz and West paint a picture of the scope, magnitude, and location of the challenges states and the nation face in meeting the call to graduate all students from high school prepared for college. Specifically:

  • Each year, there are approximately 1.2 million ninth graders across the nation who likely need additional supports to graduate. Many of these students can be identified before they enter, or soon after they begin high school.
  • Nationwide, about 250,000 students enrolled as seniors each year do not receive diplomas by the following summer. Some are only a few credits shy of graduation and represent both a “tragic loss and the potential for quick gains.”
  • Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are within “striking distance” of achieving 90 percent graduation rates, but some of the other states with relatively high graduation rates have seen no progress since 1998.
  • For the nation to meet its graduation rate challenge, significant improvements will need to continue or begin with the seventeen to twenty states with the greatest number of dropouts, the most intense combination of weak promoting power high schools, and/or fewer graduates than their share of high school students.
  • As a whole, the nation made more progress in increasing the number of high schools with high promoting power (90 percent or more) than in decreasing the number of high schools with weak promoting power (60 percent or less).

Overall, the report says that the nation’s initial response to a graduation rate challenge was “not sufficient” because the nation as a whole did not move forward, and only one out of three states made measurable progress. “The good news is that the nation is responding,” the report reads. “The last few years have seen both an acceleration of efforts and the beginning of more comprehensive approaches. It has also become clear that the federal government needs to play a more active role.”

The complete report, as well as data on the level of recent progress for all fifty states, is available at


1) The average freshman graduation rate is the number of on-time regular diploma recipients in a given year divided by the average number of eighth-grade students enrolled five years earlier, ninth graders enrolled four years earlier, and tenth graders enrolled three years earlier.
2) In high schools with weak promoting power—also called “dropout factories”—there are 60 percent fewer seniors than freshmen three years earlier and high odds that graduation is not the norm. According to the report, these schools account for half or more of the nation’s dropouts. In high schools with high promoting power, 90 percent or more students progress in a timely fashion from ninth to twelfth grade.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.