U.S. Aims to Tackle Inflated Graduation Rates

Initiative comes as a private report shows staggering dropout figures in many big cities.

Graduation scenes at North Allegheny High School. in Pittsburgh PA, 6/11/2004
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The days when a high school dropout could count as a graduate if he promised to return for his diploma sometime in the future may soon come to an end. So may the days when a student was considered a dropout only if she registered as one. These are two of the many ways in which some local and state agencies inflate graduation rates and deceive the public and federal authorities. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says it's time to "end this dispute about what the right number is" and require all states to count high school graduates the same way.

The secretary's pledge to tackle inflated graduation rates comes on the heels of a new report that suggests the dropout problem has become a crisis in the nation's largest urban school systems.

According to the America's Promise Alliance report, the graduation rate in 17 of the country's 50 largest cities is lower than 50 percent. Nationwide, about 70 percent of students graduate with a regular diploma in four years. Spellings, who spoke yesterday at a news conference organized by the alliance, said, "It strikes me that today, on April Fool's Day, we have been fooling ourselves about the magnitude of the problem." She added with unusual candor, "And we have been fools to let so much human potential go untapped."

Spellings's sweeping proposal calls for all states to use the same formula to calculate graduation rates, specifically how many students graduate on time and how many drop out. Student performance would be broken down by demographics, including by race and income level, and each state's set of data would be made available to the public. It's not clear when states would have to switch to the new formula and start reporting more accurate graduation rates. Many states lack the technology to track students through four years of high school statewide. Spellings plans to release more details about her proposal in the coming weeks.

America's Promise Alliance, a partnership of philanthropists, businesses, and education advocates, is kicking off a national campaign of its own to lower the high school dropout rate. It will host summits in 50 cities to call attention to the problem and map out solutions. According to researchers, the cities with the lowest graduation rates include Detroit (24.9 percent), Indianapolis (30.5 percent), and Cleveland (34.1 percent). The alliance's report also finds acute disparities in graduation rates between public high schools in urban and suburban areas. For example, only slightly more than a third of students in Baltimore schools earn a diploma, compared with 82 percent of students in the suburbs—the largest urban and suburban graduation disparity in the nation. Cities with the highest graduation rates included Mesa, Ariz. (77.1 percent), San Jose, Calif. (77 percent), Nashville (77 percent), and Colorado Springs, Colo. (76 percent).

Former Secretary of State Collin Powell, a founding chair of the alliance, said during the conference that the dropout crisis is a matter of national and economic security.

"When more than 1 million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem—it's a catastrophe," he said, adding, "Whether you agree with the particular numbers or not, that's not relevant. The trend is real, and it's a trend that has to be reversed."