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Graduation Rates, A Horror Story

Graduation rates in the United States continue to demonstrate how our education system is failing a large percentage of students. Education Week recently published their report entitled, Diplomas Counts 2010.  This report takes a comprehensive look at the data that illustrates how well our education system is doing at graduating seniors in public schools across the country.  Basically, we should be ashamed at the numbers.  Some might say that we shouldn’t look at these numbers as the “glass is half-empty,” I would say we should be ashamed that nearly 31% of students who entered high school in 2007 did not graduate after 4 years.  This represents a failure on our part to serve our children well by achieving 100% graduation rate from high school.  We are not fulfilling out promise to be sure all children leave high school literate, well-informed and productive citizens.  

The data is disheartening. 

Graduation Rates  
2007 Data  
Ethnic Group Graduation Rate
White & Asian 75.0%
Latinos 56.0%
African-Amercians 54.0%
Native Americans 51.0%
Graduation Rates  
Year Graduation Rate
1969 77.0%
2005 70.7%
2006 69.2%
2007 68.8%
Highest ever recorded  

In studies conducted by Editorial Projects in Educational Research, they report that over the three years, from 2005-2007, the graduation rate has fallen almost 2%.  That means that roughly 2,000,000 students in the United States dropped out of high school over those two years.  Quoting from the Executive Summary, 

The latest decrease is considerably smaller than the nearly point and-a-half drop from 2005 to 2006.  Even so, a 0.4-percentage-point decline in the graduation rate means diplomas for 11,000 fewer students nationally in the class of 2007, compared with the previous year.

From the table of data shown above, you can see that our success in graduating students from high school is very much dependent upon the ethnic group being served.  While 25% of white and Asian students do not graduate from high school, the numbers are significantly worse for African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.  On average, almost 50% of each of those three ethnic groups did not graduate from high school in 2007.

Statistics available from the National Center for Education Statistics, while slightly different, still tell the same story, that roughly 25% of high school students do not graduate on time and the data did not change much from 2000-2007.  The highest graduation rate recorded was in 1969 at 77%. 

Condition of Education Report 2010


From another resource, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, they report in their study, Public High School Graduation and College-Readiness Rates: 1991–2002, that “the national high school graduation rate for all public school students remained flat over the last decade, going from 72% in 1991 to 71% in 2002.  Nationally, the percentage of all students who left high school with the skills and qualifications necessary to attend college increased from 25% in 1991 to 34% in 2002.”

Here is a frightening thought, in 1969, when the graduation rate was the highest at 77%, as a country we spent 34 billion dollars on elementary and secondary education or 212 billion dollars when adjusted for inflation.  In 2007, we spent 477 billion dollars to achieve a graduation rate that fell by 8%.  We increased our expenditure, adjusted for inflation, by 125% while our graduation rate decreased by 8%.  One could draw the conclusion that educational reforms devoted to improving the learning environment for students over the past 40 years were a total failure, as measured by graduation rates.

How can we live with this situation? 

In his article, A Diploma Worth Having, in the March 2011 edition of Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins writes

I have a proposal to make: It’s time we abolished the high school diploma as we know it.  In a modern, unpredictable and pluralistic world, it makes no sense to demand that every 18-year-old pas the same collection of traditional courses to graduate.

He goes on to illustrate that the typical high school diploma does not serve many of our students well and proposes what we should do to change the landscape.  But he asks the hard questions.

    • What is the point of high school?
    • What do our society and our students need from school?

In light of our poor graduation rates, our schools are not meeting the needs of 25% of the students who enter high school.  Should we continue to force the same traditional, “boring” school on all students?  We have tried this for 40 years and not succeeded.  It is time to try something different.  I would agree with Wiggins that we need a more serious national conversation about how to change our practice.  If we want to prepare students for the 21st Century, let’s not continue to educate them in the same exact way we educating students in 1969.  We can do better.

1 comment on “Graduation Rates, A Horror Story

  1. Pingback: Why would a student want to graduate from high school? « Center for Teaching

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