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Addressing America’s Dropout Challenge

State Efforts to Boost Graduation Rates Require Federal Support

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The Center for American Progress and Jobs for the Future released a report today showing that although high school graduation rates are far lower than previously understood, federal action now can significantly close the graduation gap within the next five years.

Despite several decades of intensive efforts to improve educational outcomes, the U.S. graduation rate has not reached above 70 percent in decades, and some states appear to be losing ground. On-time graduation rates hover between only 50 percent and 55 percent for African Americans and Hispanic young people.

The economic and social consequences of not completing high school are steadily intensifying. Dropouts today are twice as likely to be unemployed, and for those who work, pay is low, advancement is limited, and health insurance is less available.

The dropout problem no longer can be ignored. The United States’ global competitiveness and the economic self-sufficiency of our citizens is at stake. We need all of our youth to succeed and advance. It is time for an aggressive national effort to pursue a new, dual agenda for high school reform—one that embraces high standards and high graduation rates.

Advances in both research and practice point to new, promising strategies. Educators in urban districts ranging from New York City to Portland, Oregon are designing research-based interventions for keeping students on track, and developing new options and pathways for getting dropouts back in school and working toward a degree.

These interventions and options include a more intensive focus on fundamental English and math skills in the early months of 9th grade, coupled with quick response to academic failure, and small, personalized schools where students who have dropped out can reengage with academic learning.

Researchers have also identified indicators that very reliably identify students who, absent a school-based intervention, are likely to drop out and not graduate. Failing a core academic course in 9th grade is one of a few highly predictive signals.

Dropouts have long been viewed as a small, troubled, or unmotivated group of young people. But this view misreads the reality of high school-aged youth’s educational trajectories. More than half of the young people who do not graduate on time demonstrate remarkable determination to continue their education. Close to 60 percent of dropouts earn a high school credential within 2 years of restarting high school—in most cases by passing the tests for a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate.

Congress can play a vital role in closing the high school graduation gap by passing the proposed Graduation Promise Act of 2007. This act would establish a federal commitment to partner with states, districts, and schools to raise graduation rates. It would seed and scale up effective strategies and school designs for keeping high school-aged students in school and achieving at a high level of academic performance. And it would put these proven strategies to use immediately in the nation’s worst-performing high schools.

Significant progress requires federal action. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government has created widespread pressure to improve academic achievement. Creating incentives to improve graduation rates will require an equally strategic effort. Federal appropriations of between $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year for five to six years can speed adoption and expand the scale of state and local innovation and help create conditions for states to be laboratories of solutions to the dropout problem.

The time is right for the Graduation Promise Act. Recent media attention has helped the public appreciate the scope of the dropout problem and raised public demand for solutions. Recent research has provided more information than ever before on how to identify young people at risk for dropping out and how to help them get back on track to graduation. Drawing on the research, a number of states have enacted innovative policies that address low graduation rates.

Congress is about to start the reauthorization process for NCLB, but the legislative process promises to be long and complex. Moreover, it is unclear whether Congress will adequately address the complexity of secondary education and the full range of issues underlying low graduation and high dropout rates. Passing the Graduation Promise Act now would ensure that the kind of spur that federal action provided around academic achievement will now also be applied to the challenge of raising graduation rates.

For more information:

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7146 or ashoup@americanprogress.org

Print: Crystal Patterson (immigration)
202.478.6350 or cpatterson@americanprogress.org

Print: Madeline Meth (women's issues, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.741.6277 or mmeth@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Lindsay Hamilton
202.483.2675 or lhamilton@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org