Editorial | Graduation rates improve, but plenty of work still to do

The following editorial appeared Sunday in The (Rock Hill) Herald:

New data indicates that the U.S. high school graduation rate has reached more than 80 percent, the highest graduation rate in history. While that is a significant triumph, the nation needs to keep its focus on the nearly 20 percent who walk away without a diploma.

Data released last week by the Education Department showed that 80 percent of the class of 2012 graduated on time that year. While that represents significant gains in reducing dropouts, educators hope to continue to increase graduation rates in the years ahead.

Based on progress over the past decade, researchers hope the nation will reach a 90 percent national graduation rate by 2020.

Some states, including Iowa, Vermont, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Texas already are approaching the 90 percent threshold with graduation rates at 88 or 89 percent. But others, such as Alaska, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada, were at the low end of the spectrum with rates at 70 percent or lower.

South Carolina, with an overall graduation rate of 75 percent and a rate of 68 percent for those who receive free or reduced-price lunches, also was at the lower end of the scale. These states need to pore over the data, learn what other states are doing right and emulate those programs.

Graduation rates for African-American students - 68 percent - and for Hispanic students - 76 percent - remain below the national average. But the good news is that rates increased 15 percentage points for Hispanic students and 9 percentage points for African-American students from 2002 to 2012.

Those improvements, in fact, were largely responsible for the overall increase nationwide.

While some might assume that a higher number of low-income students would drag down a state's graduation rate, that was not necessarily the case. Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, for example, have more than half of all students counted as low income, but their overall rates are above average.

In contrast, Minnesota, Wyoming and Alaska have a smaller percentage of low-income students but also lower than average graduation rates.

Methods that seem to improve graduation rates for all students include early intervention with teenagers in danger of dropping out - one on one if necessary - to keep them in class. Experts also tout the success of closing schools that graduate less than 60 percent of students.

This survey showed that there were 32 percent fewer of the so-called “dropout factories” in 2012 than a decade earlier. Also while 46 percent of African-American students had attended those schools in 2002, the number had dropped to about 25 percent in 2012. With Hispanic students, the number dropped from 39 percent to about 15 percent.

It is estimated that nationwide 648 “dropout factory” high schools were closed during the decade. That meant that nearly 1 million children who would have gone there were educated at better schools instead.

The reason we are able to compare the different rates of each state - apples to apples - is because in 2008, the Bush administration ordered all states to conform to the same method of calculating the number of graduates instead of using wildly varying techniques to track students. Under the required system, the number of graduates in a given year is divided by the number of students who enrolled four years earlier. Adjustments are made for transfer students.

It's that simple. But it provides states with a valid comparison of which are successfully increasing graduation rates and which aren't.

This study - plus what states already know from their own experience - offers a good picture of what it takes to keep students in school. We hope South Carolina can successfully apply those lessons to raise its rates.

And we can't afford to stop there. Most students will need more than a high school diploma in the increasingly competitive marketplace to make a living.

Raising the graduation rate to 90 percent and more is just one more step toward creating a well-educated populace.