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SITTING AT HOME ON GRADUATION DAY: New Report Says that 1.2 Million Students From the Class of 2006 Failed to Graduate with Classmates

“Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation,” said EPE Research Center Director Christopher B. Swanson

As June comes to a close, the nation marks the end of another school year. Earlier this month, millions of high school seniors walked across stages at graduation ceremonies to receive their high school diplomas. For many students, Graduation Day culminated 13 years of study; for others, it served as a springboard into postsecondary education. However, according to a new analysis conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, it was just another day for an estimated 1.2 million students nationwide who failed to graduate with their peers.

“Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation,” said EPE Research Center Director Christopher B. Swanson, who oversaw the development of the report. “When 30 percent of our ninth graders fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our country’s future.”

Based on 2002–03 data (the most recent available), only 69.6% of public school students nationwide graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Among minority students, graduation rates are particularly troubling for African Americans (51.6%), American Indians (47.4%), and Hispanics (55.6%). Asian (77.0%) and white students (76.2%) fare much better. The report also finds that female students (72.7%) graduate from high school at higher rates than their male classmates (65.2%). The gender disparity holds for every racial and ethnic group and is widest among African-American females, who graduate at a 57.8% rate, compared to only 44.3% for African-American males, a difference of 13.5%.1

The report also breaks down graduation rates for specific geographic areas. Students from urban areas face the longest odds in their efforts to earn high school diplomas, with only 60% graduating on time, compared to 73.1% of rural students and 74.4% of students from the suburbs. When examining graduation rates for the nation’s 50 largest school districts, the report finds a mean graduation rate of approximately 56%. The districts with the highest and lowest graduation rates are shown in the chart below.

Top 5 School Districts

Bottom 5 School Districts

District Graduation Rate District Graduation Rate
Fairfax Co., VA 82.5% Detroit 21.7%
Wake Co., NC 82.2% Baltimore City, MD 38.5%
Baltimore Co., MD 81.9% New York City 38.9%
Montgomery Co., MD 81.5% Milwaukee 43.1%
Cypress-Fairbanks, TX 81.3% Cleveland 43.8%


In order to determine at what point students are lost in the high school pipeline, the report analyzes the transitions from 9th and 10th grade, 10th to 11th , 11th to 12th, and 12th grade to graduation. It finds that 35% of the students who “fall off track” do so between 9th and 10th grade. In contrast, only 17% of students who make it to the 12th grade fail to earn a diploma.

The analysis is a part of a special issue of Education Week called Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates and marks the first in an annual Graduation Project series. In addition to the graduation rate estimates, the issue contains information on state policies related to high school graduation requirements and an examination of the (relatively low) worth of the General Educational Development (GED) credential. It also examines factors that predict whether a student is likely to drop out, including low attendance or failing grades in math or English. A final piece of the project is an online mapping service that allows users to zoom in on each of the nation’s individual school districts and compare district numbers to state and national numbers.

The complete report, supplemental information, and online mapping tool are all available at

1) Graduation rates featured in the analysis were calculated using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method that Dr. Swanson developed. Using data from the Common Core of Data, the CPI estimates the probability that a student in the ninth grade will complete high school on time with a regular diploma.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.