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High school graduation rate hits 80 percent for first time

While the trend is positive overall, large gaps remain in achievement between African-Americans, Hispanics and whites

Amid declining school budgetsfights over charter schools and continued racial disparities in education, a report released Monday showing that U.S. public high schools reached an 80 percent graduation rate for the first time may come as welcome news to parents and educators.

But the report, while painting a positive overall picture of education reform efforts, also highlighted continued problems in the country’s educational system. It called attention to racial disparities in graduation rates and the wide gap that remains in graduation rates between some states and between urban, suburban and rural counties.

The report, which is based on Department of Education statistics from 2012, was presented by a coalition of education reform groups at the Building a GradNation Summit on Monday. It showcased how schools and school districts have closed gaps in educational achievement through a variety of interventions, including placing a greater emphasis on individualized attention, hiring school dropout specialists and closing or splitting up “dropout factories” — schools where fewer than 60 percent of teens graduate.

“At a moment when everything seems so broken and seems so unfixable ... this story tells you something completely different,” said John Gomperts, president of America’s Promise Alliance, which was founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and helped produce the report.

The report found that graduation rates have improved nationally by 8 percentage points since 2006. Iowa, Vermont, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Texas topped the state rankings with graduation rates of 88 percent or 89 percent. The bottom performers were Alaska, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada, with rates of 70 percent or lower.

A new calculation method instituted during George W. Bush’s administration allowed researchers to individually follow students and chart progress based on their income level.

It found that while low-income and minority students have made a lot of progress, wide gaps in achievement persist.

Graduation rates increased 15 percentage points for Hispanic students and 9 points for African-American students from 2006 to 2012. But only 76 percent of Hispanic students and 68 percent of African-American students graduated in 2012, compared with 81 percent of white students, the report said.

Far fewer minority students are attending dropout factories, but racial disparities remained there as well. In 2012, nearly one-quarter of African-American students attended a dropout factory, compared with 46 percent in 2002. About 15 percent of Hispanic students attended one of these schools, compared with 39 percent a decade earlier. Only 5 percent of white students attended these schools in 2012, compared with 11 percent in 2002.

Disparities are still great between special education students in different states. Students with disabilities make up about 15 percent of students nationally and have a graduation rate 20 percentage points lower than the overall rate. In Montana, 81 percent of high school students with disabilities graduated, while in Nevada, only 24 percent did.

The report attributed the positive graduation trends not to any one factor such as federal education reform but to the collective action of thousands of schools and school districts as well as to an increased awareness of the dropout problem across the country.

The graduation statistics in the report use a calculation in which the number of graduates in a given is year divided by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier, and adjustments are made for transfer students. The Bush administration ordered all states to begin using this method in 2008; before, states used a hodgepodge of formulas to calculate their graduation rates. Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma were not included in this year’s report because they have taken longer to switch to the Bush-approved system.

With wire services

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