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2015 Building a Grad Nation Report

Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic

Release date:

October 04, 2016

Released annually, by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance,, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, shows detailed progress toward the GradNation goal of a national on-time graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020.


According to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report the national high school graduation rate hit a record high of 81.4 percent, and for the third year in a row, the nation remained on pace to meet the goal of 90 percent on-time graduation by 2020.

This sixth annual update on America’s high school dropout challenge shows that these gains have been made possible by raising graduation rates for groups of students that have traditionally struggled to earn a high school diploma.

The report also includes a comprehensive look at the  student groups and geographic areas that contribute to this progress and that will be key in meeting the 90 percent goal.

Continuing a pattern seen in earlier years, rates of improvement among states and large districts varied considerably between 2011 and 2013. Some districts, including those with a majority of low-income and minority students, made big improvements, while others lost ground.

This pattern indicates that high school graduation rates are not increasing because of broad national economic, demographic, and social trends. Rather, the constellation of leadership, reforms, and multi-sector efforts at state, district, and school levels drove this progress, and shows that with focus and concerted effort, graduation rates can be increased in every part of the country.

The 2015 Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic report is co-authored by John Bridgeland, Jennifer DePaoli and Erin Ingram of Civic Enterprises; and Robert Balfanz, Joanna Hornig Fox and Mary Maushard at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with John Gomperts and his team at America’s Promise and Bob Wise and his team at the Alliance for Excellent Education. The 2015 report is presented by lead sponsor AT&T, with supporting sponsorship from Target.

The GradNation campaign, led by America’s Promise, seeks to raise the national on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020 and increase postsecondary enrollment and completion.

National Picture

The nation’s quest to achieve a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 can be broken down into four quarters, with each five-year segment from 2001 to 2020 representing one quarter. During the current third-quarter (2011-2015), the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR)[1] became available for nearly all states, and it has been instrumental in showing where progress is being made and where challenges still exist.

2013 Overall Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) Map
Hover over any State for additional information.

Map Key

Though the challenge may seem large, to get to a 90 percent graduation rate for all students, the nation will need just 310,000 more graduates in the Class of 2020 than in the Class of 2013, which based on third-quarter progress, is obtainable.

Find out how many more graduates will need to come from your state >>

As the third quarter comes to a close and the fourth and final quarter begins, the nation will need to double down on its efforts to increase graduation rate outcomes for low-income, minority, and special education students, and continue driving progress in big states and large school districts, where the majority of the country’s student population resides.

  • The latest state level 2012-13 Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) data revealed that 29 of the 50 states equaled or exceeded the national average of 81.4 percent and six states were within two percentage points of reaching the 90 percent goal. Fourteen states, with graduation rates between 69 and 78 percent, still have much further to go.
  • Hispanic/Latino and African American students are starting to close the graduation rate gap with their White student peers. Hispanic/Latino students – the fastest growing population of students – have made the greatest gains in the ACGR reporting era, improving 4.2 percentage points from 2011 to 2013. African American students also experienced significant improvement, rising 3.7 percentage points, from 67 percent in 2011 to 70.7 percent in 2013.
  • One reason for the continuing improvement in graduation rates among Hispanic/Latino and African American students is the decline in the number of high schools with low graduation rates, often referred to as “dropout factories.” There are now fewer than 1,200 of these schools nationwide and 1.5 million fewer students attending them, and the number of African American and Hispanic/Latino students in these schools has dropped below 20 and 15 percent, respectively.
  • Despite improvements, unacceptably low levels of minority, low-income, English-language learners, and special education students are graduating from high school.
  • Ten states increased their graduation rates by four percentage points or more from 2011-2013, while another 22 states made gains of 2 to 3.9 points. Unfortunately, 10 other states gained less than one percentage point or lost ground over the past three years.

Driver 1: Low-Income

The opportunity gap is real. Low-income students are graduating at a rate 15 percentage points behind their more affluent peers. The growth and spread of concentrated poverty in our schools and neighborhoods has enormous consequences for the nation’s most disadvantaged students.

Graduating on time is the norm for middle- and high-income students, but not for their low-income peers. In 38 states, 85 percent or more of middle- and high-income students graduate high school in four years, but only two states graduate 85 percent or more of their low-income students on time.

Some states and districts have been able to close or almost eliminate the opportunity gap. Kentucky stands out as a beacon to all other states. Its graduation rate for low-income students is 85 percent, nearly identical to its graduation rate for middle/high-income students and well above the national average for all students.

Connecticut, which led the nation in closing the opportunity gap between 2011 and 2013 with a 6-point decline, shows that rapid improvement is possible, through concentrated effort. The gap between graduation rates for low-income and middle/high-income students narrowed in 28 states, but got larger in 18, with North Dakota seeing the largest increase of 7.6 percentage points.

With low-income students now a majority in America’s public schools and income inequality and concentrated poverty on the rise in our neighborhoods and schools, the nation must redouble efforts to close the opportunity gap and ensure these students have the resources and supports they need to stay on track to graduation.

Driver 2: Minority Students

Nationally, Hispanic/Latino and African American students are starting to close the graduation gap with their White peers. This tells us that those who have historically been viewed as underserved can make tremendous progress when given the right resources and time.

Since 2006, graduation rates for students of color have significantly improved, with a 15-percentage point gain for Hispanic/Latino students, and a 9-percentage point gain for African American students. Yet even with this progress, Hispanic/Latino and African American graduation rates (75.2 percent and 70.7 percent, respectively) are still lower than rates for White (86.6 percent) and Asian (88.7) students.

Seven states – Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California and Illinois – educate about 40 percent of the nation’s African American students. All of these states either have graduation rates in the 60s for African American students, or have recently experienced significant declines. Unless these states start to experience significant improvements, the recent progress made in raising African American graduation rates will stall.

One reason for the national improvement in graduation rates among students of color is there are now fewer high schools with low graduation rates, often referred to as “dropout factories.” While there were 2,000 such schools in 2002, there were fewer than 1,200 of these schools nationwide and 1.5 million fewer students attending them in 2013. The most recent data indicates acceleration in this improvement. Between 2012 and 2013 the number of high schools with low graduation rates declined by more than 200.

Six states collectively educate more than 70 percent of the nation’s Hispanic/Latino students. Of the six states with the highest numbers of Hispanic/Latino enrollment, only three have graduation rates above the national subgroup average of 75.2 percent. In New York, the graduation rate for Hispanic/Latino students is nearly 20 points below the national average for all students.

Five states collectively educate more than one-third of the nation’s African American high school students. However, four out of these five still have graduation rates for Black students in the 60s.

Roadblocks to graduation for students of color include: “toxic stress” from living in high-poverty neighborhoods; a rise in exclusionary discipline practices, particularly in secondary schools; disparities in academic opportunities, such as access to challenging classes and coursework that will help to prepare students for college and career; as well as lack of support for English-language learners. 

Enrollment of students of color is growing rapidly across the country. It is essential that states focus on improving graduation rates for these increasingly majority populations.

Driver 3: Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities, specifically those students receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), make up approximately 13 percent of all public school students nationwide.

The percentage of students identified for special education varies greatly from state to state, ranging from less than 9 percent of public school students in Texas to more than 17 percent of the students in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Students with disabilities constitute significant portions of K-12 public school enrollment, so driving improvements will rest heavily on raising their graduation rates.

What percentage of students with disabilities are graduating from your state? Use this interactive chart to find out >>

The graduation rate for students with disabilities hit 61.9 percent in 2012-13, an increase of 2.9 percentage points since 2010-11, but still nearly 20 points behind the national average. Estimates show that the graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and students in the general population ranges across states from 3.3 percentage points to 58.8 points.

State variations of ACGR data, coupled with variation in state allowances for special education guidelines, contribute to the disparities keeping special education students from reaching their full potential. In addition chronic, negative misperceptions and disciplinary disproportionalities add to the challenge of keeping these students in school and on track to graduate.  

It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of special education students can meet regular diploma requirements with the right supports.

Driver 4: Big Cities/Big Districts

There are 500 public school districts with K-12 enrollments of 15,000 students or more that collectively educate 40 percent of all public school students, 58 percent of the nation’s African American and Hispanic/Latino students, and 47 percent of its low-income students.

Nationally and in most states, these larger school districts are the inflection points in raising high school graduation rates as well as those of low-income and minority students.

The largest 500 districts are, in many cases, leaders in productive innovation. Some have accomplished exemplary results to date and serve as magnets for organizing community resources and ideas.

  • One-quarter (124/500) of these districts had graduation rate gains of more than 6 percent in this time period (averaging 8.4 percent, triple the national average). These districts are 61 percent low-income and educate 10 percent of the nation’s public high school students.
  • One-sixth (88/500) of these districts had graduation rate improvement gains of four percentage points (one percentage point over the national average).
  • On the other end of the spectrum, there are a combined 169 districts (one-third) that made little to no improvement or lost ground. Some of these are high-poverty, high-minority districts. Others, with lower poverty rates and minority student populations, had high initial graduation rates but have recently stagnated.

The significance of the 500 largest districts can be seen when the rate of improvement among them is examined by state. Here, some clear patterns and explanations emerge. For example, the decline in graduation rates in Arizona was experienced by all of its major districts, suggesting in this case, that perhaps some state-level variables played a role.

By contrast, overall improvement in California resulted from more of its large districts being on the positive than the negative side of the ledger, but with highly variable improvements across its major districts. This likely indicates that its overall improvement was driven more by the aggregation of district actions than state initiatives.

A similar pattern is seen in Texas. There, however, more districts made modest improvements or retreated than demonstrated significant improvement, reflecting the overall slowing of Texas’s progress. Finally, the recent backsliding in graduation rates in New York and Illinois is at least in part the result of four large districts in each state that saw their graduation rates decline.

While the nation’s larger districts navigate enormous complexities, from student composition and population shifts to state regulations and funding, substantial progress is being made and continued improvement in these districts is possible.

Driver 5: Big States

Fifty-five percent of America’s public high school students live in just 10 states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia and North Carolina. These Big States are home to nearly 8.5 million of the nation’s 14.7 million public high school students.

The most recently reported Average Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) for these states ranges from 71.7 percent in Georgia to 88 percent in Texas, with six states already above the national average of 81.4 percent.

  • The rate of increase for these states also varies widely. Florida and North Carolina, for instance, show nearly 5 percentage point increases from 2011 to 2013, while Illinois and New York posted decreases.
  • California and Texas account for more than half of the growing Hispanic/Latino high school student population, and one-fifth of all students in the nation’s public schools.
  • California increased its graduation rate by 4.4 percentage points from 2011 to 2013, and has become a key driver of national improvement in Hispanic/Latino graduation rates.
  • Although Texas is nearing the 90 percent goal, its growth stagnated over the past two years at 88 percent.
  • North Carolina posted an increase in its cohort graduation rate from 68.3 percent in 2006 to 82.5 percent in 2013.

As these Big States seek to raise graduation rates for their students, many are putting innovative policies and programs in place -- for example, the use of data to identify and provide supports to struggling students, the remodeling of school funding streams to allocate more resources to high-needs communities, and a focus on rigorous academics through early college programs and investment in professional development for teachers and staff.

Policy Recommendations

The full report includes policy recommendations for change at the local, state and federal level. Here are a few:

  • Eradicate zero-tolerance discipline policies since students who are expelled or suspended become far more likely to drop out of school completely.
  • Expand the use of early-warning indicators so educators can intervene at the earliest and most critical times to help students succeed.
  • Make state funding more equitable so low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers.
  • Establish a standard diploma that is available to all students, which limits exit options that prematurely take students with disabilities off track to graduating on time with a standard diploma.
  • Increase the use of consistent and comparable data that holds states accountable for graduation rates as an important and necessary measurement tool for determining where the challenges exist.

Join the Conversation

For the release of the Building a Grad Nation report, we are encouraging conversation about the progress we are making and the urgent work that remains. Please join the conversation by using the hashtag #GradNation and download the partner and community social media guide.

Help spread the word about the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report (just click to launch and edit it in Twitter):

Download the 2015 Building a #GradNation Report & learn more about high school grad rates. http://bit.ly/1m18i8I #GradNation

Sponsored by:
Sponsored by AT&T Aspire, Target and GradNation


[1] The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate is the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class. For any given cohort, students who are entering grade 9 for the first time form a cohort that is subsequently “adjusted” by adding any students who transfer into the cohort later during the next three years and subtracting any students who transfer out, emigrates to another country, or dies during that same period. This definition is defined in federal regulation 34 C.F.R. §200.19(b) (1) (i)-(iv). Source: KIDS COUNT Data Center

Grad Rate Data
The 5 Promises

The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: