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Officials seek to improve experience and increase graduation rates in high schools and colleges

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Helping Georgia kids grow up strong and successful is one of the main goals of KidsPeace. A big part of this comes down to education, particularly high school graduation. The article that follows, by Rachel Higgins, puts numbers to recent graduation rates in Georgia and across the nation, and takes a look at what legislators are doing to improve current trends. Rachel mostly writes about ways in which students can earn college credentials over the Internet; readers interested in learning more can explore programs here, on Rachel’s main website. 

High school and college completion rates are a concern to teachers and administrators nationwide, but educators in a handful of states have gone one step further to implement strategies that effectively reduce dropout rates among primary, secondary and tertiary students. Today, more young men and women from these states are staying in their classrooms and eventually earning degrees – and academic experts around the country are closely monitoring these trends. Georgia is one state where educators are making a concerted effort to improve graduation rates.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, roughly three-quarters of American high school students graduated on time during the 2008-09 academic year. This figure (equivalent to more than 3 million students) was calculated using the average freshman graduation rate, which divides the number of a senior class’s awarded diplomas by the number of freshmen who enrolled four years earlier. While the 75.5 percent national graduation rate represents only a slight increase from the previous academic year (0.8 percent), it also represents an increase of 3.8 percent since the 2000-01 year and a steady increase over the last decade. And due to the rising population, the class of 2009 graduated nearly half a million more students than the class of 2001.

A national survey conducted by the NCES found large disparities from state to state. At 90.7 percent, Wisconsin graduated the most seniors; the runners-up were Vermont (89.6 percent), North Dakota and Minnesota (both 87.4 percent), Iowa (85.7 percent) and New Jersey (85.3 percent). Only one state, Vermont, saw its graduation rate rise by more than 10 percentage points from the previous year. In terms of the total number of students, California graduated the most seniors with 372,310, followed by Texas (264,275), New York (180,917) and Florida (153,461). The lowest rate was held by Nevada, where 56.3 percent of seniors graduated from high school in 2009; this figure represented a decline of 13.7 percent since 2000-01 and more than 20 percent since 1990-91. In seven other states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Mississippi, as well as the District of Columbia – the graduation rate was less than 70 percent. Additionally, 20 states recorded graduation rates that were decreases from the 1990-91 figures.

According to the NCES survey, graduation rates were somewhat consistent by region. The majority of states with 80 percent or higher graduation rates were located in either the Midwest or the Northeast. States that graduated less than 70 percent of students were mostly located in the South. The majority of states recorded graduation rates ranging between 70 and 80 percent; these included states from every regional sector in the U.S. except the Southeast.

One year ago, the NCES released a report of high school dropout and completion trends in the United States. Overall dropout rates have steadily declined in the last 40 years; 3.4 percent of American students left school without obtaining a diploma or alternative certificate in 2009, compared to 6.1 percent in 1972 and 4 percent in 1990. There was no measurable difference between dropout rates for male and female students. However, there was a significant disparity in dropout rates between white students (2.4 percent) and students belonging to minority groups, such as African-Americans (4.8 percent) and Hispanics (5.8 percent). Family income was another significant factor; students from low-income families were five times as likely to dropout as their upper-class counterparts (7.4 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively).

The national dropout rate (including the District of Columbia, but not territorial entities like Puerto Rico) was 4.1 percent; at the state level, dropout rates ranged between 1.1 percent (Wyoming) and 11.5 percent (Illinois). In terms of reduced dropout rates over a 15-year period, Idaho recorded the most dramatic decline from 8.5 percent to 1.6 percent. Other states with notable dropout decreases include: Alabama (5.8 to 1.5 percent), Georgia (8.7 to 4.2 percent), Kentucky (5.2 to 2.9 percent), Minnesota (5.2 to 1.9 percent), Nevada (9.8 to 5.1 percent), Oregon (7.3 to 3.4 percent) and Wyoming (6.5 to 1.1 percent).

College completion rates also varied on a state-by-state basis. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 15.9 million American college students graduated with a degree in 2010, an increase from the previous year of nearly 100,000 individuals. However, very few states reported significantly increased graduation rates between 2009 and 2010; the largest was recorded by New Jersey (45.9 to 47.2 percent), while other notable spikes occurred in Alaska (32 to 32.9 percent), Colorado (41.9 to 43.3 percent), and Vermont (43.7 to 44.5 percent). The District of Columbia recorded an increase in college graduates during that period that was higher than any state’s (65.6 to 68.8 percent); D.C. also recorded the highest percentage of graduates. States with the highest graduation rates in terms of percentage of the population included Massachusetts (54.4 percent), North Dakota (50.8 percent), New York (49.6 percent), Minnesota (49.8 percent) and Connecticut (45.9 percent). States where the lowest percentage of the population graduated were Nevada (28.4 percent), Arkansas, New Mexico (28.7 percent) and West Virginia (29.5 percent).

Today, educational experts are analyzing these figures in order to develop measures that improve retention and reduce dropout rates at all academic levels. Nationwide programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) establish guidelines for graduation and college readiness as early as the elementary level, and some states (such as Missouri) have adopted similar programs that prepare students for high school completion from a young age. Many other states have adopted programs that kick in at the high school level. A recent report by EdWeek noted that certain state policies were linked to higher graduation rates. Twenty-three states clearly define the proficiencies necessary for students to complete college courses, 25 states grant advanced diplomas and/or formal recognition to students who surpass high school requirements, and 25 states require exit exams for graduating seniors. Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post wrote that nine states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas – have improved graduation numbers by decreasing the number of ‘dropout factories’, or schools with notoriously low completion rates. And Wyoming and Kentucky, two states that dramatically reduced the number of dropouts in recent years, have explored the possibility of a state-mandated dropout age of 18.

Georgia is a state where high school graduation rates have remained stubbornly low. According to a 2012 article in the Marietta Daily Journal, the state’s graduation rate has fallen to 67 percent – an overall increase in the last two decades, but down from an estimated 80 percent in recent years. In response, Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge said the state will implement a high school-level “career pathways initiative” that allows students to take courses modeled after their ideal future profession. These so-called “career clusters” are supplemented with fundamental courses in math, English and history. “With career pathways bringing back the relevance of what students are doing, we’ll see more students choose to stay in school,” Barge said.

Nationwide, educational leaders are exploring avenues similar to Georgia’s career pathways initiative in order to bring up the rates of graduation and college enrollment – and lower the number of students that drop out of high school. By increasing the number of young men and women who finish school, each state can make a significant contribution to the country’s educated workforce.
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