By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - For the first time in decades, the United States is making steady gains in the number of high school students earning diplomas, putting it on pace to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, according to a new analysis released Monday.
But the good news comes with a big asterisk: students with learning disabilities and limited fluency in English face long odds to finish high school, with graduation rates for those groups as low as 25 percent in some states, the analysis found. Minority students also continue to fall well behind their white peers, with about one-third of African-American students and 29 percent of Hispanic students dropping out before graduation.
The "Building a Grad Nation" report - which was co-authored by Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar of dropout rates at Johns Hopkins University - found strong improvements in graduation rates in a diverse collection of states including Tennessee, Louisiana, Alaska, California, Texas and New York. The national graduation rate jumped from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 78.2 percent in 2010, with the pace of improvement accelerating in the past few years.
"For the first time in 40 years, we have seen significant, sustained improvement," said John Bridgeland, a co-author of the study and the chief executive of Civic Enterprises, a public policy group in Washington, D.C.
Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin lead the nation with graduation rates close to 90 percent, according to the report, which used data from 2010 and 2011. At the bottom of the heap: Nevada and New Mexico, where barely six in 10 high school freshmen can expect to earn a diploma within four years. Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma didn't use the same formula for calculating rates as other states and thus were not included in the report.
Those who have been successful in raising graduation rates credit a range of tactics:
* Launching new schools designed to train kids for booming career fields, so they can see a direct connection between math class and future earnings
* Offering flexible academic schedules and well-supervised online courses so students with jobs or babies can earn credits as their time permits
* Hiring counselors to review every student's transcript, identify missing credits and get as many as possible back on track
* Improving reading instruction and requiring kids who struggle with comprehension to give up some electives for intensive tutoring
* Sending emissaries door-to-door to hound chronic truants into returning to class
"Increasing the graduation rate has to be a purposeful exercise, something you're driven to do every day," said Terry Grier, superintendent of public schools in Houston, Texas, where the graduation rate has jumped from 64.3 percent to 78.5 percent since 2007. "More and more, you're seeing people across the country get it."
Yet the report's authors warn that the momentum could still stall.
POTENTIAL LIMITING FACTORS
Nearly every state will soon be rolling out curricula tied to the Common Core standards, which aim to bring more rigor to math and language arts instruction. Many will require students to pass exams tied to those higher standards to graduate, which could push lead to more failures and higher drop-out rates, the report suggests.
The authors also warn that some states, such as Kentucky, New Mexico and Florida, plan to grade high schools in large measure by student test scores and participation in advanced courses, with the graduation rate accounting for less than 20 percent of the school's grade. That could give principals an incentive to push out failing students and focus on high-achievers, rather than helping the stragglers work toward their diplomas.
Another concern: some states, such as Texas, do not count students as dropouts if they say they are leaving to be home-schooled or to transfer to a private school. The report notes that thousands of those students are significantly behind in credits and suggests that many may be dropping out without admitting it.
Perhaps the biggest threat to momentum, however, is the lagging performance of disadvantaged students, the report's authors said.
In Nevada, for instance, just 23 percent of students with disabilities, 29 percent of those with limited English skills and 43 percent of African-American students earned their diplomas in 2011.
Even generally high-performing states such Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut have strikingly poor records with some minority students. Minnesota has the biggest gaps: The graduation rate for African-American and Hispanic students hovered around 50 percent in 2011, compared to 84 percent for white students.
"We need to look at these disparities head on," said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's Education Commissioner.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, has proposed $640 million in new education funding, including an effort to better integrate schools in hopes of boosting performance for minority students, Cassellius said.
Elsewhere, state officials plan to bring down the dropout rate by fundamentally rethinking the way school works.
In Oregon, where the graduation rate was 68 percent in 2011, Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew aims to stop measuring student progress by credit hours and start focusing on how kids can demonstrate mastery of key concepts - whether or not they've sat through a full year of classes.
The state's graduation rate - and the poor performance of minority students - "is untenable, unsustainable, and frankly highly dangerous," weakening the economy by leaving so many students unprepared for college or career, Crew said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Boston; Editing by Eric Walsh)