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Public school graduation rate best in 4 decades, report finds

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The percentage of students at public high schools who graduate on time has reached its highest level in nearly 40 years, according to the most recent federal government estimates released on Tuesday.

Based on data collected from the states for the Class of 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 78 percent of students across the country earned a diploma within four years of starting high school. The graduation rate was last at that level in 1974, officials said.

High school graduation rates are one measure of school success, and educators and policymakers have been trying for decades to stem the number of U.S. students who drop out of high school.

Notable in 2010 was the rise in the percentage of Hispanic students who graduate on time, with a 10-point jump over the past five years, to 71.4 percent. Hispanics are the nation's largest minority group, making up more than 50 million people, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. One in four pupils at public elementary schools is now Hispanic.

Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew center, said the findings confirm trends his organization has been tracking. “We've seen a surge in the Hispanic high school completion rate,” he said.

He pointed to the nation's soft economy as one reason more students are staying in school but added that there is likely a shift in demographics at play, too. As the number of Hispanic immigrants declines, more high school students today are likely to have been born in the United States and value education, Lopez said.

Graduation rates improved for every race and ethnicity in 2010, but gaps among racial groups persist. Asian students had the highest graduation rate, with 93 percent of students finishing high school on time. White students followed with an 83 percent graduation rate, American Indians and Alaska Natives with 69.1 percent, and African-Americans with 66.1 percent.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, agreed with Lopez that the weak economy is one reason for the improvement in graduation rates.

“When the economy turns down or there are poor economic conditions, there's a lack of available jobs for high school dropouts, fewer jobs that they can actually be qualified for,” Buckley told reporters last week.

High school graduation rates have a significant effect on the economy, according to a study last year by America's Promise Alliance, a foundation created by Colin Powell. On average, high school graduates earn $130,000 more over their lifetimes than peers who drop out of school, the study said.

In 2010, 38 states had higher graduation rates while rates for the other 12 were flat, the report said. Nevada had the lowest graduation rate, with 57.8 percent of students in the Class of 2010 graduating on time. Vermont had the highest rate at 91.4 percent.

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