The percentage of students at public high schools who graduate on time has reached its highest level in nearly 40 years, according to the most recent federal government estimates released Tuesday.
Based on data collected from the states for the Class of 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 78 percent of students across the country earned a diploma within four years of starting high school. The graduation rate was last at that level in 1974, officials said.
Students in Maryland and Virginia had higher graduation rates than the national average — 82.2 percent and 81.2 percent, respectively.
The District had a lower graduation rate than all but one state, with 59.9 percent of its students graduating on time. But it is not unusual for major cities to experience a higher dropout rate and lower graduation rate than states. One study found the graduation rate for the Class of 2005 in the nation’s 50 largest cities was 53 percent, compared with 71 percent in the suburbs.
High school graduation rates are one measure of school success, and educators and policymakers have been trying for decades to stem the number of U.S. students who drop out of high school.
Notable in 2010 was the rise in the percentage of Hispanic students who graduate on time, with a 10-point jump over the past five years, to 71.4 percent. Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group, making up more than 50 million people, or about 16.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. One in four pupils at public elementary schools is Hispanic.
Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew center, said the findings confirm trends his organization has been tracking. “We’ve seen a surge in the Hispanic high school completion rate,” he said.
He pointed to the nation’s soft economy as one reason more students are staying in school but added that there is probably a shift in demographics at play, too. As the number of Hispanic immigrants declines, more high school students are likely to have been born in the United States, Lopez said.
Graduation rates improved for every race and ethnicity in 2010, but gaps among racial groups persist. Asian students had the highest graduation rate, with 93 percent of students finishing high school on time. White students followed with an 83 percent graduation rate, American Indians and Alaska Natives with 69.1 percent and African Americans with 66.1 percent.
Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, agreed with Lopez that the weak economy is one reason for the improvement in graduation rates across the board.
“When the economy turns down or there are poor economic conditions, there’s a lack of available jobs for high school dropouts, fewer jobs that they can actually be qualified for,” Buckley told reporters last week. “Historically, there has been a correlation between the dropout rate going down when the economy is weaker.”
High school graduation rates have a significant effect on the economy, according to a study last year by America’s Promise Alliance, a foundation created by Colin L. Powell. On average, high school graduates earn $130,000 more over their lifetimes than peers who drop out of school, the study said.
In 2010, 38 states had higher graduation rates while rates for the other 12 were flat, the report said. Nevada had the lowest graduation rate, with 57.8 percent of students in the Class of 2010 graduating on time. Vermont had the highest rate, with 91.4 percent of students earning diplomas with their class.
For decades, high school graduation rates were routinely overstated in official statistics, with the Education Department putting the nation’s rate above 80 percent and some states reporting rates above 90 percent. States used dozens of different reporting methods, with some figuring into their rates those dropouts who later earned the equivalency certificate known as a General Educational Development diploma, or GED.
In 2005, the Education Department began publishing an official estimate of graduation rates, and all 50 states agreed to adopt a standard method of calculating those rates by 2013.
Across the country, a total of 514,238 public school students dropped out of high school in the 2009-10 school year. New Hampshire and Idaho had the lowest dropout rates, while Mississippi and Arizona had the highest.
The dropout rate — those who leave school between ninth and 12th grades and do not earn equivalency diplomas — was the lowest for Asian/Pacific Islander students at 1.9 percent and white students at 2.3 percent. American Indians/Alaska Natives had the highest dropout rate, at 6.7 percent. Black and Hispanic students dropped out at rates of 5.5 and 5 percent, respectively.
Boys dropped out of school in higher numbers than girls in every state. The national dropout rate was 3.8 percent for boys and 2.9 percent for girls.
Dropout rates do not combine with graduation rates to total 100 percent because they do not include students who take longer than four years to graduate or those who earn GED certificates.