Urban vs. suburban: the high school graduation gap

Times Staff Writer

Students in urban public school districts are less likely to graduate from high school than those enrolled in suburban districts in the same metropolitan area, according to research presented Tuesday.

The report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that about 75% of the students in suburban districts received diplomas, but only 58% of students in urban districts did.

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the gap was even wider, with 78% of students in suburban districts and 57% of those in city districts graduating. Just 45% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District completed all four years of high school successfully, compared with the national graduation average of 70%.


The analysis of graduates in the 2003-04 school year examined U.S. Department of Education data from metropolitan areas surrounding the country’s 50 most populous cities. Of the principal school districts serving those cities, LAUSD’s graduation rate was the ninth-lowest, the report found. Nationally, 52% of students in the main school districts of urban areas graduated.

The dropout rate of more than a million students each year “is not just a crisis; this is a catastrophe,” said former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the founding chairman of America’s Promise Alliance, which presented the research.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the government would soon require states to use a uniform method to report graduation data, although she did not provide specifics. This would require a change in the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows states to devise their own methods of determining graduation rates and tracking improvements.

“The problem is frequently masked by inconsistent and opaque data-reporting systems,” Spellings said. “For example, in some districts, a school only counts a dropout if you register as a dropout. . . . In others, a dropout’s promise to get a GED at an unspecified future date is good enough to merit graduate status. With these loose definitions . . . it’s no wonder why this epidemic is so silent.”

Officials also pointed to the need for community involvement to help urban schools with the problem. Leaders of businesses and faith-based groups were urged to make graduation a priority in discussions with children.

“It is not just a problem for our schools or our teachers,” Powell said. “It is a problem for all of us. All these parts have to come together, connected to a superior school system, and we can solve this problem.”


To accomplish that, the alliance announced plans for dropout prevention summits in every state over the next two years to bring community, school and business leaders together “to develop workable solutions and action plans for improving our nation’s alarming graduation rates.”

For the “Cities in Crisis” report, the EPE Research Center, a nonprofit in Bethesda, Md., used a method called the cumulative promotion index to calculate graduation rates. The biggest difference between this index and previous measurements is that it looks at graduation in four steps -- three grade-to-grade promotions and receiving a diploma -- instead of as a single event.

The index counts only students who receive standard high school diplomas as graduates. The promotion rates for each step of the process were multiplied by each other to form a graduation rate for the district. Reported dropout statistics were not used.

Panelists said that open access to information and to problem areas was crucial in addressing the issue.

“This problem is not only manageable; it’s solvable in a decade or less,” said Robert Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “We can locate the problem. It’s not every school; it’s not every student.”

Tuesday’s report said the main school districts of Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Baltimore had the lowest graduation rates in the country. All were below 40%; Detroit’s was 25%.


Baltimore recorded a staggering gap in urban versus suburban performance: 82% of students in suburban districts graduated, but only 35% within the city did.

San Diego was the only California city, and one of just five nationwide, to report a minimal difference in urban and suburban graduation rates; less than 1 percentage point separated the two figures.