By STEPHANIE BANCHERO
Percentage of Students in Public Institutions Getting Diplomas Reached 35-Year High in 2010, But Country Still Lags Peers.
The U.S. public high-school graduation rate climbed to a 35-year high in 2010, according to new federal data, although U.S. high-school students are still struggling to keep up with their international peers.
The data show that 78.2% of high-school students received their diploma in four years in 2010, a 2.7-percentage-point jump over the previous year.
Graduation rates have been mostly on the upswing over the past decade. In 2000, the U.S. high-school graduation rate stood at 71.7%, according to the study from the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for national school data.
Despite the improvements, U.S. high-school students are still failing to keep up with international peers, which contributes to concerns about U.S. competitiveness overall. The U.S., which once had one of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, has slipped and now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries, according to a 2012 ranking by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Students who lack a high-school diploma are more likely to be unemployed and earn, on average, far less than those who secure the sheepskin.
“The country has finally woken up to the dropout crisis and what it really means to the individual and to the economy,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit that advocates for polices to help improve high schools, such as more-rigorous curricula. “The best economic stimulus package is a diploma.”
The federal data to be released Tuesday represent the percent of public-school students who graduated from high school and received a regular diploma in four years. It doesn’t include those who leave school and earn a general equivalency diploma.
The study shows the graduation rate at 74.9% in 1975, the furthest back the national center has solid data. Since then, the rate has hovered in the low 70s. In 2001, it began a mainly upward trajectory, and experts offer several theories why.
Robert Balfanz, who has conducted extensive research on dropouts and directs the Everybody Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said the early 2000s were an “activist period of high-school reform.”
He attributed the gains, in part, to new state and district strategies, including an intense focus on keeping low-performing ninth graders on track, creating programs to help low-performing students make up courses they flunked and establishing small high schools in places such as New York City, so students felt more connected to teachers.
Richard Murnane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied graduation rates, said there is no clear evidence to explain the uptick. But he offered several hypotheses, including a dramatic drop in the teenage pregnancy rate in the past 15 years. Teenage moms are more likely to drop out of school, and their children also are at risk.
The data released Tuesday show that 42 states have boosted graduation rates in the past five years, with Tennessee, Alaska and New York posting the largest growth.
Susan Keyock, a special-education teacher at Metropolitan High School, a 380-student, low-income school in New York City, said its small enrollment creates “a little sense of home and safety” for students. “They know everyone is invested in them graduating and going to college, which motivates them,” said Ms. Keyock. Her school’s graduation rate is about 75%, compared with the city’s rate of about 61%.
The data also show that Latino students have made notable progress in recent years. In 2010, they graduated at a rate of 71.4%, compared with 61.4% in 2006. Asian-American and white students still are far more likely to graduate than Latino and African-American students.
Gabriela Bosquez, a 17-year-old whose family is from Mexico, is on track to graduate this spring and become the first in her family to attend college. Now, she’s at Golder College Prep in Chicago, part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which serves mainly Latino students and boasts a 90% graduation rate.
At Golder, students must apply to 10 colleges and take at least four college tours. Gabriela said she knew little about college until she got to Golder. “When kids don’t really know what is out there and no one pushes them, they won’t strive for big things,” she said.
A version of this article appeared on the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.