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The Real Truth about Low Graduation Rates, An Evidence-Based Commentary

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Document date: August 31, 2004
Released online: August 31, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Achievement testing is the centerpiece of the state accountability systems mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Accordingly, the public attention directed towards achievement scores has largely eclipsed the crucial role that graduation rates play in NCLB accountability, at least until recently. As a new body of research on graduation rates is gaining wider currency, we are just now coming to an uncomfortable realization — the nation appears to be facing a crisis in high school completion. These findings have prompted much-needed investigations into several key issues: the origins of the law's concern about graduation rates; status of graduates and dropouts for NCLB accountability; the consequences of using different ways to define and measure graduation rates; and state strategies for incorporating graduation rates into their federal accountability plans. This paper draws on recent research and analysis from the Urban Institute in an attempt to clarify these issues and to offer a foundation upon which to ground on-going policy debates, future research into the graduation and dropout phenomena, and the shape of the next generation of educational accountability systems.


In an age of data-driven accountability, it is hard to imagine being surprised by a statistic, especially a basic piece of information that we think we already know. During the past year, as states have gone about the business of implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the performance of the nation's public schools in a fundamental albeit largely neglected area has been brought into a penetrating and increasingly unflattering light. As it turns out, graduation rates are lower than previously thought, probably much lower.

If asked to guess the graduation rate in the nation's public schools, the conventional wisdom would suggest a figure in the neighborhood of 85 percent. For decades, in fact, commonly-reported statistics from the Current Population Survey and Census would have pointed to an answer in that range.1 Databases such as these are readily available and well-known, which have made them attractive sources of information. At the same time, however, it is important to note that statistics from these sources typically capture the characteristics of the general young adult population (e.g., age 18 to 24) rather than those of students who are attending or have recently left public schools.

In addition, estimates from such population-based data sources are not able produce reliable annual estimates below the regional level, cannot readily distinguish between public and private school students, and may reflect the educational attainment of young adults who no longer live in the place where they attended, graduated from, or dropped out of high school. Consequently, population statistics are ill-suited for measuring the performance of public education systems, which is now a primary concern under NCLB.

A much more sanguine picture emerges from a recent wave of reports based on data derived directly from the actual public school systems being held accountable under No Child Left Behind.2 To take an example from a growing body of studies, research from the Urban Institute suggests that today slightly more than two-thirds of public high school students nationwide receive a diploma (Exhibit 1). Even more disturbing is the finding that little more than one-half of students from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups finish high school. The situation appears to be even more dire for students in our nation's largest high poverty urban districts, where as few as one-third of all students graduate. In these places, completion rates among certain disadvantaged groups of students are often lower still.

Notes from this section

1. The Current Population Survey has been a primary sources of information on high school dropout and completion rates reported by the U.S. Department of Education for several decades. See, Dropout Rates in the United States: 2000 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

2. Several reports released by the Urban Institute have contributed to this new wave of research on high school graduation: Keeping Count and Losing Count: Calculating Graduation Rates for All Students under NCLB Accountability (Washington, DC, Urban Institute, 2003); Who Graduates? Who Doesn't? A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001 (Washington, DC, Urban Institute, 2004); Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis (Cambridge, MA, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute, 2004). Other organizations have arrived at similar findings regarding the extent of the high school completion crisis: Telling the Whole Truth (or Not) About High School Graduation (Washington, DC, The Education Trust, 2003); Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States (New York, The Manhattan Institute, 2003); Locating the Dropout Crisis (Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University, 2004)

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Education | Governing | Race/Ethnicity/Gender

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