Study: Record High School Graduation Rate On Track for 2020

Alexandra Pannoni

The U.S. is on track to graduate a record number of high school students by 2020.

That's the good news in a report released today, but the bad news is that certain groups of students -- special education, low-income and minority students -- continue to lag behind.

The nationwide graduation rate reached 80 percent in 2012, the highest in U.S. history, and is on pace to reach 90 percent by 2020, according to the 2014 "Building a Grad Nation" report released by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

But for the majority of the states, achieving a 90 percent overall graduation rate will not be possible without significant improvements in graduation rates for these populations of students, according to the report.

[Find out how high schools and districts are working to improve graduation rates.]

Students with disabilities, for example, graduate at a rate of about 20 percent less than the national average, the report finds, and these students make up about 13 percent of all students nationally. For instance, in Nevada, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is 24 percent, the report says.

Robert Balfanz, co-author of the report and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, says that part of the problem is that in some states administrators assume that students with disabilities cannot earn a diploma.

"They just say, 'You're a special education student? You'll get a certificate of attendance essentially and we're not even trying to have you earn a diploma,'" he says.

Kansas is among the states with the highest graduation rates for students with disabilities. Seventy-seven percent of students with disabilities in Kansas graduate, the report states.

State officials have focused on integrating students with disabilities in general education courses where there is a high level of expectation, rather than keep them in self-contained classrooms, says John Bridgeland, co-author of the report and CEO of Civic Enterprises. They've also worked to unite parents and educators in creating a learning environment for each child, he says.

African-American and Hispanic students have seen significant gains in graduation rates, but these populations still have the farthest to go, the report says.

Seventy-six percent of Hispanic students and 68 percent of African-American students graduate from high school, the report says. Those rates are about 10 to 15 percent less than the graduation rate of white students.

Graduation rates in big cities with high concentrations of low-income students are far lower than the national level as well, according the report. Most still have graduation rates in the 60-70 percent range.

On a positive note, the report finds progress has been made in the number of so-called "dropout factories," high schools where less than 60 percent of students graduate. The number of these schools has declined 33 percent since 2002, the report states. Most of these schools are located in high-poverty areas, Balfanz says.

[Read more on how to identify a high-school dropout factory.]

Part of this is because of students who leave the schools for better educational opportunities elsewhere or districts closing these schools and replacing them with smaller schools designed for high-poverty environments, Balfanz says.

But in some cases, officials have worked hard to improve these schools, he says.

"It's being done," Balfanz says. "There are schools that educate very high poverty, very challenged populations that have very high grad rates."

Administrators and educators can improve high school graduation rates by addressing chronic absenteeism, improving middle school, re-engaging youth who have left school and providing more and better adult and peer support, the report says.

"A big part of the solution here is a culture where every student counts and student supports that are tailored to what those individual students need," Bridgeland says.

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Alexandra Pannoni is an education intern at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at apannoni@usnews.com.