US graduation rate reaches 80%; Utah matches national rate in 2012, report says

By Kimberly Hefling

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 10:00 p.m. MDT

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WASHINGTON — U.S. public high schools have reached a milestone, an 80 percent graduation rate. Yet that still means 1 of every 5 students walks away without a diploma.

Citing the progress, researchers are projecting a 90 percent national graduation rate by 2020.

Their report, based on Education Department statistics from 2012, is to be presented today at the Building a GradNation Summit.

Utah matched the national average of 80 percent, according to the report. State officials reported in December that the 2013 rate hit 81 percent. National statistics for 2013 have not been compiled.

The growth has been spurred by such factors as a greater awareness of the dropout problem and efforts by districts, states and the federal government to include graduation rates in accountability measures. Among the initiatives are closing “dropout factory” schools.

In addition, schools are taking aggressive action, such as hiring intervention specialists who work with students one on one, to keep teenagers in class, researchers said.

Utah State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said having the goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 has led to a renewed focus on preventing drop-outs and raising high school completion rates.

“There’s been more focus on graduation,” Peterson said. “It’s become a focal point for public schools.

Utah has approved funding for all students to take the ACT, and next year a new program will start that covers the cost of AP tests for low-income students. Peterson said those steps will help first-generation college students think more seriously about their academic future.

“Suddenly college doesn’t look that distant and maybe community college may be a good investment,” Peterson said.

Moving forward, the State School Board and Gov. Gary Herbert have a goal of increasing the number of high school counselors.

“We like where we’ve gone so far,” Peterson said. “Obviously funding continues to be an issue.”

Growth in rates among African-American and Hispanic students helped fuel the national gains. Most of the growth has occurred since 2006 after decades of stagnation.

“At a moment when everything seems so broken and seems so unfixable ... this story tells you something completely different,” said John Gomperts, president of America’s Promise Alliance, which was founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and helped produce the report.

The rate of 80 percent is based on federal statistics primarily using a calculation by which the number of graduates in a given is year divided by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier. Adjustments are made for transfer students.

In 2008, the Bush administration ordered all states to begin using this method. States previously used a wide variety of ways to calculate high school graduation rates.

Iowa, Vermont, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Texas ranked at the top with rates at 88 percent or 89 percent. The bottom performers were Alaska, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada, which had rates at 70 percent or below.

Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma were not included because these states received federal permission to take longer to roll out their system.

The new calculation method allows researchers to individually follow students and chart progress based on their income level. By doing so, researchers found that some states are doing much better than others in getting low-income students — or those who receive free or reduced lunch meals — to graduation day.

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