In late November the U.S. Department of Education released states’ four-year high school graduation rates for 2010-11. It was the first time states used a common, more accurate measure that “accurately accounts for students who drop out or who do not earn a regular high school diploma.”

“Accurately accounts” is education-ese for no longer including students who didn’t graduate from high school in the graduation tallies in the first place. In an open letter U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan congratulated Chief State School Officers for “providing an accurate, comparable graduation rate measure that can help guide more effective policy and practice at the Federal, State, and local levels.” Duncan added: 

We already are seeing in States and school districts across the country a new emphasis on high school graduation and, in particular, a long-overdue focus on the roughly 1,500 "dropout factories" [see here and here] that are responsible for up to one-half of the one million students who drop out of high school each year.”

Nationwide, the median four-year high school graduation rate is 80 percent for all students, dropping to 59 percent for students who have disabilities or limited English proficiency. So how did states stack up when it comes to four-year graduation rates?


All students: national median 80 percent

Best: Iowa, 88 percent

Worst: DC, 59 percent


Black students: national median 69 percent

Best: Montana and Texas, 81 percent

Worst: Nevada, 43 percent


Hispanic students: national median 71 percent

Best: Maine 71 percent

Worst: Minnesota 51 percent


Students with disabilities: national median 59 percent

Best: South Dakota, 84 percent

Worst: Nevada, 23 percent


Students with limited English proficiency: national median 59 percent

Best: South Dakota, 82 percent

Worst: Arizona, 25 percent


Low-income students: national median 70 percent

Best: South Dakota, 86 percent

Worst: Nevada, 53 percent


States have released their graduation rate targets—a real eye-opener. As the Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci cautions:

As much as we all love empirical rankings, graduation rates are an imperfect measure of school quality. For one thing, a quick way to improve them is to lower graduation standards. Still, people of all ideological persuasions can agree that fewer dropouts are better than more dropouts. It helps that the Department of Education provided more precise data.