U.S. high school graduation rate hits highest level in decades

The latest federal report on public school graduation and dropout rates paints an improving picture of high school education. Above, the Fremont High Class of 2012 celebrates graduation day at Home Depot Center in Carson.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The percentage of U.S. students graduating from high school within four years rose to its highest level in decades in 2010, while the rate of those who dropped out fell to one of its lowest in years.

The latest federal report on public school graduates and dropouts, released Tuesday, paints an improving picture of high school education, but the results vary by location, a reflection of the reality that education policy remains a local issue.

Contributing to the improvement was a poor economy, with fewer jobs of any kind available, especially less of the poorer-paying, entry-level posts that can tempt students to leave school. Unemployment ranged as high as 10% in the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year included in the study.


According to the report, 3,128,022 public school students received a high school diploma in that school year. That led to an Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate of 78.2%, the best since 1974, according to the U.S. Education Department. The AFGR is an estimate of high school students who graduate within four years of starting ninth grade.

That is also the best recent rate since at least the 2002-03 school year, when it stood at 73.9%. The graduation rate has been seesawing through the decade, up to 75% in 2003-04 then declining slightly before it hit 75.5% in 2008-09.

California, with the nation’s largest public school system, led the country in new high school graduates in 2010, turning out almost 405,000. Its AFGR of 78.2% matched the national average, and was more than 7 points better than the previous year.

But California also produced the most number of dropouts, almost 93,000, for a rate of 4.6%, well above the national average. During the 2009-10 academic year, more than 514,000 students dropped out of high school nationwide, a rate of 3.4%.

Even as the national graduation rate was moving up and down through the years, there continued to be a wide variance among the states, ranging from 57.8% in Nevada and 59.9% in the District of Columbia to 91.1% in Wisconsin and 91.4% Vermont.

Overall, there was a percentage increase of at least one point in 38 states in 2009-10 from a year earlier while only the District of Columbia reported at least a one percentage point decrease in the same year.


By race, the average graduation rate was best for Asian/Pacific Islander students at 93.5% and weakest for African Americans at 66.1%. According to the report, white students graduated at 83.0%; Latinos at 71.4%; and American Indian and Alaska Native at 69.1%.

The recent high point for the dropout rate was 2006-07 when it stood at 4.4%; it then fell to 4.1% for the next two years. Nationally, students were most likely to drop out of high school during their senior year.

Arizona had the highest dropout rate, at 7.8%, followed by Mississippi at 7.4%, according to the report. Mississippi, New Mexico and Wyoming had dropout rates that rose more than one percentage point, while Delaware, Illinois and Louisiana reported decreases of at least one percentage point. Illinois dropped from roughly 12% to 3% while Louisiana dropped from 7% to 5%.

New Hampshire and Idaho had the lowest dropout rates at 1.2% and 1.4%, respectively.

Across the United States, the dropout rate was higher for males, 3.8%, than for females, at 2.9%, according to the report.


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