Almost one million students who start ninth grade each year will not earn a diploma four years later. That’s one of every four students. These figures represent an incalculable loss of talent and carry profound civic and economic consequences. The high school diploma is a bare minimum credential necessary to have a fighting chance at successful participation in the workforce or civil society.
Until two years ago, however, state systems that report graduation rates dramatically undercounted dropouts. An analysis of accountability for high school graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reveals two major problems:
* State goals for raising graduation rates are far too low to spur needed improvement.
* Gaps between student groups (white, Latinos, African Americans, Latino, low-income) are allowed to persist by an accountability system that looks only at average graduation rates.
To spur improvement, we need accurate data. But we also need to set ambitious graduation-rate goals for all groups of students, measure whether schools are meeting them, and provide strategic supports to struggling students and schools. Calculating and reporting honest graduation rates for all groups of students are the necessary first steps in designing accountability systems that our schools and students need.
Ironically, America led the world in high school graduation at a time when attaining a diploma was less critical to social and economic mobility. The lead we built through early adoption of universal secondary education has evaporated, and many other countries both graduate more of their young people and boost greater social and economic mobility. According to the most recent data, the U.S. ranks 17th in high school graduation in the developed world, behind counties such as Germany, France, and Hungary.
Studies have shown that high school graduates will earn upwards of $200,000 more in their lifetime than those workers who did not complete high school. Additionally, a person with a Bachelor’s degree will earn, on average, almost twice as much as workers with a high school diploma over a lifetime ($2.1 million compared to $1.2 million).
We can reverse these dropout trends, but it will take hard work and the concerted efforts of policymakers, educators, and communities. Improving graduation rates for all groups of students won’t happen overnight, but it will never happen if it is not even a goal we are working toward.
To view a list of schools in your state that are listed as “Dropout Factories”, visit Dropout Factories.
To view state reports, go to Summaries 2006-States.
Sources: The Education Trust and National Center for Education Statistics.