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High School Graduation Rates Vary Drastically Among States

As graduation rates soar in states such as New York and Tennessee, others continue to struggle.

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More students today are leaving high school with a diploma in hand, according to the "Building a Grad Nation" report released Monday by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Climbing slowly but steadily, the nation's graduation rate crept to 75.5 percent in 2009—up 0.5 percentage points from 2008 and 3.5 percentage points from 2001, the report shows.

While a few states made "modest gains" in improving graduation rates, the report notes that rest of the states fell into two categories: 20 states increased substantially, while the rates of 25 states dwindled.

In the group of states with greatly improved graduation rates, all 20 states' graduation rates averaged gains of more than 0.5 percentage points annually since 2002. Tennessee and New York lead that group of states as the only two that saw, on average, 2 percentage-point bumps in graduation rates each year since 2002. Between 2002 and 2009, Tennessee saw a graduation rate increase of 18 percentage points, and New York saw a graduation rate increase of 13 percentage points.

[Learn why high school graduation rates may be an illusion.]

Another state in the set that's improving dramatically is Wisconsin, which boasts the highest 2009 graduation rate in the nation: an impressive 90 percent.

But as these states increase graduation rates, another set of states is struggling. Twenty-five states have seen "very limited, stagnate, or declining graduation rates over the last decade," the report says.

Nevada, for example, dropped from a 71.9 graduation rate in 2002 to a 56.3 graduation rate in 2009. This decline accounts for 5,512 fewer Nevada high school students graduating in 2009 than in 2002.

Students in so-called "dropout factories"—schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of students—are particularly vulnerable to leaving school unsuccessfully. The number of dropout factories is decreasing, according to the "Building a Grad Nation" report.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke of the encouraging decline in dropout factories Monday at the Building a Grad Nation Summit, which focused on this report.

"From 2008 to 2010, the number of high schools in America where graduation is not the norm fell from about 1,750 schools to 1,550 schools," Duncan said. "All told, nearly 400,000 fewer students attended high school dropout factories in 2010 than just two years earlier."

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