Who Graduates? Who Doesn't?

A Statistical Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001

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Document date: February 25, 2004
Released online: February 25, 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).


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

It is generally acknowledged that completing high school represents a key milestone in an individual's schooling and social and economic advancement and that graduation rates are an important indicator of school system performance. Nevertheless, graduation rates have not been a major focus of educational statistics reporting in the past. At the very least, these measures have generated far less attention and interest than test scores. Since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became federal law in January 2002, high school graduation rates have gained an increasingly important place in educational policy circles. The federal law for the first time requires that high schools and school systems be held accountable in a meaningful way for graduation rates as well as performance on academic assessments. This important step in the evolution of federal accountability has generated a considerable amount of debate over a variety of issues including: the state of the nation with regard to this key measure of educational fitness; graduation levels among particular student subgroups (such as historically disadvantaged minorities); the ways in which states are implementing graduation rate accountability required under the law; and even the best methods for measuring graduation rates.

This study, the latest in a series of investigations conducted by the Urban Institute, contributes to the growing body of knowledge in this field of inquiry by providing the most extensive set of systematic empirical findings on public school graduation rates in the United States available to date. Detailed descriptive statistics and analytic results are presented for the nation as a whole, by geographical region, and for each of the states. This study also offers an exceptionally detailed perspective on the issue of high school completion by examining graduation rates for the overall student population, for specific racial and ethnic groups, and by gender. We also analyze graduation rate patterns for particular types of school districts, with special attention to the systems in which the nation's most socioeconomically disadvantaged students are educated.

High school graduation rates are calculated using a measure called the Cumulative Promotion Index or CPI. This indicator, developed at the Urban Institute, offers several significant advantages over other commonly reported graduation rate statistics. Paired with data from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data (CCD), we are able to compute graduation rates for the high school class of 2001 in nearly every public school district in the nation.

The findings presented in this report do not paint a flattering portrait of high school graduation for public schools in the United States.

  • The national graduation rate is 68 percent, with nearly one-third of all public high school students failing to graduate.
  • Tremendous racial gaps are found for graduation rates.
  • Students from historically disadvantaged minority groups (American Indian, Hispanic, Black) have little more than a fifty-fifty chance of finishing high school with a diploma.
  • By comparison, graduation rates for Whites and Asians are 75 and 77 percent nationally.
  • Males graduate from high school at a rate 8 percent lower than female students.
  • Graduation rates for students who attend school in high poverty, racially segregated, and urban school districts lag from 15 to 18 percent behind their peers.
  • A great deal of variation in graduation rates and gaps among student groups is found across regions of the country as well as the states.

These findings may strike many readers as surprising and troublesome. This study provides the most compelling evidence to date that the nation finds itself in the midst of a serious, broad-based, and (until recently) unrecognized crisis in high school completion. In part, this crisis has gone undetected for a lack of in-depth national investigations into the issue based on solid statistics and methods. Understanding the depth and breadth of a problem, however, is a crucial first step in devising a solution. The goal of the Urban Institute's work and the detailed analysis presented in this report is to help decision makers and the public to better understand the depth and breadth of the nation's apparent high school graduation crisis and the factors that are associated with low graduation rates. Armed with better knowledge, we will be more likely to identify and implement promising intervention strategies for struggling schools.

1. INTRODUCTION

High school graduation rates have gained increasing prominence as a key issue in educational policy circles since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed into law in January of 2002. For individuals, a high school diploma has long been recognized as an essential step towards economic and social well-being. Individuals with higher levels of education (and more advanced credentials) enjoy higher income, more stable employment, and less dependency on public assistance. Those with more education are also less likely to experience a variety of detrimental social outcomes, including early childbearing, reports of ill health, incarceration, or criminal victimization. For school systems, graduation rates also represent a key indicator of performance. Schools and districts in which more students earn high school diplomas are generally regarded as better performers. In truly highly-achieving school systems, of course, mastery over a meaningful body of knowledge and skills should also be a prerequisite for earning a diploma.

Despite nearly universal recognition that completing high school is a key milestone in an individual's schooling and an important indicator of system performance, graduation rates have not been a major focus of educational statistics reporting in the past. At the very least, these measures have generated far less attention and interest than test scores. The No Child Left Behind Act, however, has sparked a renewed interest in graduation rates. The federal law for the first time requires that high schools and school systems be held accountable in a meaningful way for graduation rates as well as performance on academic assessments. This important step in the evolution of federal accountability has generated a considerable amount of debate over a variety of issues including: the state of the nation with regard to this key measure of educational fitness; graduation levels among particular student subgroups (such as historically disadvantaged minorities); the ways in which states are implementing graduation rate accountability required under the law; and even the best methods for measuring graduation rates.

This report contributes to the growing body of knowledge in this field by providing the most extensive set of systematic empirical findings on public school graduation rates available to date for the nation as a whole and for each of the states. In this report, we calculate high school graduation rates using a measure called the Cumulative Promotion Index or CPI. This indicator, developed at the Urban Institute, offers several significant advantages over other commonly reported graduation rate statistics.

  • The CPI method adheres to the definition of the high school graduation rate specified by NCLB, so it could be used for purposes of federal accountability.
  • Calculating the graduation rate using CPI requires information on enrollment and diploma counts, and avoids the notoriously unreliable dropout data upon which some other methods rely.
  • The CPI makes very modest demands on data systems, so it can be calculated for virtually every public school district in the country using information available to the general public.
  • The CPI indicator can be calculated after only two years of data collection, as opposed to four years for most other methods.
  • Since the CPI employs a focused one-year window of observation, it may be particularly desirable for application in accountability systems. Compared to other approaches, the CPI places a stronger emphasis on current educational conditions and would be quicker to detect improvements related to on-going reform initiatives.

This study takes the CPI method and applies it to data from the Common Core of Data (CCD). This U.S. Department of Education database is the most comprehensive national source of information on public schools and local education agencies. The CCD also offers the only means of directly comparing graduation rates for school systems across the country using data defined and reported in a uniform manner. By pairing the CPI indicator with the CCD data, graduation rates for the high school class of 2001 can be computed for nearly all public school districts in the nation.

In general, the findings of this report do not paint an encouraging portrait of high school graduation for public schools in the United States. Nationwide, the overall graduation rate for the class of 2001 was 68 percent. As disconcerting as this national statistic may be, focusing on the this figure alone would fail to call attention to the truly troubling situation that describe the educational experiences for particular student groups. Results consistently point to certain areas that should be of grave concern to educators and policy makers. When results are broken down by race and ethnicity, we find that more than 75 percent of White and Asian students completed high school with a diploma. By stark contrast, however, the same could be said for barely half of students from historically disadvantaged minority groups. Graduation rates for Black, American Indian, and Hispanic students were 50, 51, and 53 percent respectively. Male students complete high school at consistently lower levels than females. Graduation rates are also substantially lower for students educated in highly-segregated, socio-economically disadvantaged, and urban school systems. Strong regional disparities consistently emerge from the findings, as does a tremendous amount of variation in the performance of individual states.

Many readers will find these results surprising and troublesome. This study provides the most compelling evidence to date that the nation finds itself in the midst of a serious, broad-based, and (until recently) unrecognized crisis in high school completion. In part, this crisis has gone undetected for a lack of in-depth national investigations into the issue based on solid statistics and methods. Understanding the depth and breadth of a problem, however, is a crucial first step in devising a solution. The goal of the Urban Institute's work and the detailed analysis presented in this report is to help decision makers and the public to better understand the depth and breadth of the nation's apparent high school graduation crisis and the factors that are associated with low graduation rates. Armed with such knowledge, we will be more likely to identify and implement promising intervention strategies for struggling schools.

Following this introduction (Section 1), the remainder of this report is organized as follows.

  • Section 2 provides a discussion of the Data and Method used in this study.
  • Section 3 offers an overview of the study's descriptive findings. An emphasis is placed on graduation rate results for the student population as a whole, and results disaggregated for racial-ethnic subgroups and by gender. Graduation rates for different kinds of school districts are also examined.
  • Section 4 conducts more sophisticated bivariate and multivariate statistical analyses in order to investigate the linkages between graduation rates and district context, particularly relating to levels of socio-economic disadvantage and segregation.
  • Section 5 offers a brief conclusion to the analytic portion of the study.
  • Section 6 comprises the bulk of this document. Here we present a series of individual data profiles for the Nation, Regions of the country, and the 50 States plus the District of Columbia. These profiles contain a summary of graduation rate findings, broken down by student subgroups and district characteristics. The state profiles include results for the 10 largest school systems under their respective jurisdictions. Demographic data are also included in these profiles, which is essential for placing graduation rate findings into an appropriate social and educational context.

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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