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High Schools Improve Graduation Rates

Report: More high schools graduating 60 percent or more of their students.

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The number of high schools that graduated fewer than 60 percent of their students dropped from 2008 to 2009, according to a new study.

The number of so-called "dropout factories," which once made up more than 10 percent of all public high schools, dropped from 1,746 in 2008 to 1,634 in 2009, a 6.4 percent decline. It's an 18.5 percent decline from a high water mark of 2,007 in 2002, according to the "Building a Grad Nation" report. The report was released by America's Promise Alliance, an organization established by former Secretary of State Colin Powell that focuses on improving children's lives.

But there is still a ways to go. Many of these schools are in poor areas, both urban and rural, and more than 2 million students still attend these schools. The report outlines a goal of improving the nation's graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, which would be nearly a 20 percentage-point increase over the current rate.

Schools in California, South Carolina, and Illinois showed the greatest improvements, with each state reducing the number of dropout factories by 20 or more. In 2008, Connecticut had 14 schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent, whereas in 2009, it only had one.

[Learn how some states are trying to reduce truancy.]

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University professor who coauthored the report, says most of the reduction has come from school improvement, not the outright closure of underperforming schools. He estimates 40 to 50 chronically failing schools were closed.

Balfanz says experts are learning how to predict which students are at risk of dropping out, and programs are being developed in many states to curb chronic truancy and improve early learning. "It's making sure [students] make the transition from basic arithmetic to mathematics," he says. "That they're making the transition from learning to read to reading to learn."

Programs such as drama, debate, and sports can also keep students in school because it ties them to a social group and keeps them involved with the school, he says.

Next year, federal rules will go in place that will require all the states to uniformly report graduation rates; the states will be required to show gradual improvement. This should reduce the number of schools failing to graduate at least 60 percent of their students, Balfanz says. "So far it's been a coalition of the willing," he says. "I'm more hopeful because a lot of states are making big jumps. Hopefully the new rules will accelerate this."

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