Economic Snapshot | Education

Graduation rates are rising, but are lower for minorities

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Snapshot for August 8, 2007.

Graduation rates are rising, but are lower for minorities

by Joydeep Roy

High school completion rates have been consistently going up over the last 20 years, according to a U.S. Department of Education analysis. These findings contradict recent claims that high school graduation rates in the United States are at an alarmingly low level and that the rates have been constant or even falling over the last 20 years.1

Once in every decade, the U.S. Department of Education carries out a school-based longitudinal study. These studies follow a nationally representative cohort of students from high school through post-secondary years and verify respondents’ answers against school transcripts. The results from the last three surveys2 show a 5.8 percentage-point decline in the number of high school sophomores who left school without graduating within the following two years (see Chart ).

Percentage of high school sophomores who had left school without completing a four-year program, as of spring two years later
Yet, despite this progress, there remain significant racial disparities in high school completion. While Asian sophomores have a dropout rate of 3.8% and white sophomores have a dropout rate of 6.0%, the corresponding rates for blacks and Hispanics are 10.8% and 12.7%, respectively. With high school graduation getting a lot of attention in policy debates and in the media, educators and policy makers should celebrate these gains in high school completion and build on this success to narrow the racial gaps.

Data Notes:

1. Sophomores who left school and earned GEDs or alternate credentials are counted as having left school without a regular diploma or certificate of attendance.

2. These figures exclude a few students who are still enrolled, so the final dropout rate will be a little higher.

3. Similarly, these figures exclude dropouts in ninth and early 10th grades—so the overall high school dropout rate will be somewhat higher. However, these data are not consistent with the claim that 50% of black students drop out, as that would require a 44% dropout rate from entering ninth grade to the spring of the sophomore year.

End Notes:

1. See, for example, the 2007 Diploma Counts report of the Editorial Projects in Education, which puts the national graduation rate at 70% and that of blacks and Hispanics at 53% and 58%, respectively.

2. These are the High School and Beyond Longitudinal Study of 1980 Sophomores (HS&B), the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS:88), and the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002).

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