More Than A Million Didn't Graduate High School This Year

Study also finds only half of American Indian, black students receive diplomas.

Less than a month ago, the graduating class of 2006 experienced the ultimate rite of passage. But as students grabbed for their diplomas, tossed their caps and said goodbye to high school, almost one-third of their former classmates were left behind.

More than 1.2 million students in the United States failed to graduate from high school this year, according to a report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The center's research reveals that the national graduation rate has hovered around 70 percent since the mid-'90s with little progress. Despite continuing efforts to keep kids enrolled, it seems as though many students are closing up their lockers for good before the final bell rings.

The study, titled "Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates," was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and evaluated data from all 50 states for the 2002-03 school year, the most recent hard data available. Based on their findings, researchers projected rates for this past school year.

"While we are moving in the right direction in our efforts to provide all young people with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today's economy, the results of Diplomas Count also expose vast inequities in graduation rates throughout the country," Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a statement.

Some findings from the study:

  • Roughly half of American Indian and black students receive their diplomas, compared with more than three-quarters of non-Hispanic whites and Asians.
  • Male students are less likely to graduate than their female counterparts.

Many minorities reside in urban or disadvantaged areas where school performance is often low to begin with, and social problems such as crime or drugs can further distract students from school, said EPE Research Center Director Christopher Swanson.

Among the leading forces fueling high school dropout rates is poor academic preparation prior to high school, according to Swanson. One-third of high school dropouts leave school between the ninth and 10th grades, the study found. The transition to high school is often extremely difficult for students because of the raised expectations and workload, Swanson said (see "Think SATs Are Stressful? States Forcing High Schoolers To Declare Majors"). He added that the social and emotional stresses teens experience can also factor into the decision to drop out.

"It's really the first time that a student needs to be passing courses and accumulating credits to get a diploma and to keep moving forward," Swanson said. "So if students are not prepared very well, then it's hard for them to keep on track. And as soon as they start falling off track — if they're held back in class — then that's a really strong predictor of dropping out."

In addition to inadequate schooling in earlier years, some researchers speculate that the rise in state-mandated testing may be a major hurdle for some students. More than 20 states now require students to pass some sort of exit exam in order to receive a diploma. Some researchers argue, however, that many states with exit exams already had low graduation rates prior to implementing the tests.

Daunted by difficult tests and unprepared for high school-level academics, many kids opt out of school early to avoid the hassle. But life can prove to be a lot more challenging for young people without a degree.

Compared with high school graduates, dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, earn lower wages and have kids at a younger age and raise them as single parents, according to the study. The report also said a single, 18-year-old dropout earns $260,000 less in a lifetime than a degree-holding peer.

Dropouts aren't the only ones coping with the consequences of leaving school; schools are also being held accountable. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, graduation rates are one way the government evaluates a school district's yearly progress (see "Bush's No Child Left Behind Act Gets A Failing Grade").

Schools have been forced to track graduation figures much more closely, and many hope that emerging hard data on dropout rates will kick-start a movement for reform.

"When you see two districts neighboring each other that are so different, you start to ask the question, 'Well, is it that these districts serve different student populations, or do they serve the same types of students but one is just doing a much better job at it?' " Swanson said. "Once we can start to look at that level of detail, we'll get a better handle on the problem, but then we'll also get a better sense of how we may want to approach this in trying to improve the graduation rate."