High School Graduation Rates Hit Another All-Time High

With over 81 percent of students graduating within four-years of entering high school, the Class of 2013 achieved the highest on-time graduation rate in U.S. history according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report. After graduation rates languished in the low 70s for nearly four decades, rates have accelerated dramatically over the past decade.  According to the report, if this rate of improvement continues the national graduation rate will reach 90 percent by 2020, a goal of the authors of Grad Nation.

While attainment gaps remain, the gap is narrowing between traditionally disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers. This is particularly true for the fastest growing group of students in our nation’s schools, Hispanics, whose graduation rate increased from 71 percent to 75 percent between 2011 and 2013. Black students made significant gains during this period as well, improving their graduation rate from 67 percent to 71 percent. Despite these gains the graduation rates for black and Hispanic students are still significantly lower than those of white students (87 percent).

While this is certainly good news it actually doesn’t provide a complete picture of the success in raising high school graduation rates. This is because these are only on-time graduation rates and do not include those students who take longer than four years to earn a standard high school diploma. As CPE found in our report about late high school graduates, Better Late Than Never, our national high school graduation rate is likely about 5 percentage points higher if we include students who graduate within six years. This means that our public schools are likely graduating at least 86 percent of students. And since black and Hispanic students are more likely to graduate late than their white classmates, the attainment gap is likely to be narrower as well. These are graduates who are far too often overlooked as successes even though, as the Grad Nation report pointed out, districts across the nation have made significant efforts to get students back on the graduation track or re-enroll students who had dropped out completely to help them earn the same diplomas as their peers who graduated on-time.


The Findings

State Graduation Rates

  • On-time graduation rates vary by state
    • More than half of states (29 or 50) have graduation rates above the national average of 81.4 percent.
      • Six states have graduation rates within two percentage points of 90 percent.
      • Fourteen states have graduation rates between 69 and 78 percent.
    • Iowa achieved the highest on-time graduation at 89.7 percent followed by Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Texas all of which posted 88 percent graduation rates.
    • Oregon had the lowest graduation rate at 69 percent. All other states had at least a 70 percent on-time graduation rate.
    • Ten states increased their graduation rates by four or more percentage points between 2011 and 2013, with Nevada and Alabama leading the way which saw gains of 8.7 and 8.0 percentage points, respectively.
      • Another 22 states made gains between 2 and 3.9 percentage points during the same time period.
      • Six states (Arizona, Illinois, New York, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) saw a drop in their graduation rates between 2011 and 2013.
  • Family income is not the primary driver for variation across states
    • Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma all have low-income student populations greater than 60 percent, yet each of the states are among the national leaders in graduation rates.
    • On the other hand, Alaska, Minnesota, and Wyoming have low-income student populations below 40 percent but each rank in the bottom 10 in terms of graduating their low-income students.
    • At 85 percent, Kentucky, Indiana and Texas were tied for having the highest on-time graduation rate for low-income students.
      • In Alaska, only 60 percent of their low-income students graduated on-time, the lowest in the nation, even though they had a similar proportion of low-income students in their schools as Iowa who graduated 80 percent of their low-income students.
    • Connecticut made the greatest progress in narrowing the graduation gap between low and non-low income students, narrowing the gap by 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2013.
      • North Dakota saw their gap increase by nearly 8 percentage points during the same time period.


National Graduation Rates

  • The national graduation rate hit another all-time high.
    • 81.4 percent of students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2009 graduated with at least a standard high school diploma by the summer of 2013.
      • Between the early 1970s and mid 2000s, the national on-time graduation rate remained in the low 70s. However, between 2003 the 2013 the national graduation rate has improved approximately one percentage point per year.
      • As recently as 2001, the national graduation rate was at 72 percent.
    • At the current pace the national graduation rate will hit 90 percent by 2020—a goal of the report’s authors— and would put the U.S. once again among the world leaders.
  • Black and Hispanic students graduating at a much higher rate
    • While graduation rates for white students have improved, graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have improved at a faster rate.
      • The graduation rate for Hispanic students jumped from 71 percent in 2011 to 75 percent in 2013
      • Black students made headway as well by improving their graduation rate from 67 percent to 71 during the same time period.
      • Yet, large gaps exist as nearly 87 percent of white students graduated on-time in 2013.

Dropout Factories

  • Fewer students are attending so-called ‘Dropout Factories’ defined as schools where less than 60 percent of students graduate on-time.
    • There are nearly 40 percent fewer Dropout Factories in 2013 than in 2002 (1,146 and 2,007 respectively).
    • Furthermore, the number of students attending a Dropout Factory was nearly cut in half with 1.5 million fewer students attending a Dropout Factory in 2013 compared to 2002.
      • The number of black and Hispanic students in these schools dropped below 20 and 15 percent, respectively.

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