The (Somewhat) Good and (Mostly) Bad News About High-School Dropout Rates

By Patrice Wingert

June 14, 2010

As NEWSWEEK releases its list of the best high schools in America, a look at students most at risk. The good news: Latino and black high school graduation rates have slightly improved. The bad news: Those rates are not increasing fast enough to make up for the demographic shifts (proportionately less affluent and white students, more poor, minority and immigrant teens) in the country’s public high school population. The result, according to a new report, is that overall high-school drop-out rates have risen for the second year in a row, after nearly a decade of improvement and increased national attention.

Based on the latest data, around 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, or about 1.3 million a year. Nationally, about 68.8 percent of students who start high school graduate four years later, but there are huge local differences. While 83 percent of the students in New Jersey graduate each year, only 41.8 percent of Nevada’s students do.

Because of lags in collecting data, the report, Diploma Count 2010, produced by Editorial Projects in Education, is based on reviews of graduation data from 2007, so the report predates the recession and the recent economic downturn was not a factor. Instead, says Christopher Swanson, vice president of EPE, analysts say the growing proportion of poor, minority and immigrant kids in public high schools is making a challenging situation more difficult, and additional effort will be needed to turn things around. “The roots of the drop-out crisis are longstanding and persistent,” says Swanson, with the population mix being a key factor. “Nevada has the lowest graduation rate, largely because of what’s happening in one very large urban district, Las Vegas, where they’ve seen a big influx of students from families of recent immigrants or poorly educated families or those with low levels of income. They are emblematic of what we are seeing in other cities in a less dramatic fashion.” If instead the national proportion of middle class and affluent students in public school had stabilized in 2006 and 2007, he said, the slight uptick in Latino and black graduation rates might well have translated into a further decline in national drop out rates.

Among the most encouraging news in the report is the list of 21 urban districts that performed much better than expected, based on historical trends. The Newport-Mesa Unified school district in Newport Beach, Calif., graduated 86 percent of its diverse student body, 29 points better than the average comparable district. Others that did much better than expected included David Douglas District in Portland, Ore., and Texarkana ISD in Texarkana, Tex..

Looking forward, Swanson said analysts are uncertain whether the recent economic downturn will further worsen the situation. While recession-related unemployment may have motivated more teens to drop out to help support their families, it’s also possible that the lack of low-skill jobs encouraged more kids to stay in school.