2012 Spotlight

A Closer Look at High School Students in the United States Over the Last 20 Years

High School Completion

There are several ways to determine if high schools are successful at having students complete their high school high schools, meaning the enrollment of 12th-grade students as a percentage of the 9th-grade class four years earlier. We also look at status dropout rates and the averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR), and how both of these have changed over time.

Public high schools with senior classes that are substantially smaller than the entering class 4 years earlier are referred to as low-retention high schools. Low-retention high schools are defined here as those with a senior class size that is 70 percent or less of the size of the freshman class that had entered 4 years earlier (see indicator 16). To be included, a high school must have had at least 10 seniors in the given year and at least 10 freshman 4 years earlier. In 2009-10, there were approximately 15,500 regular public high schools in the United States with at least 10 seniors that had at least 10 freshmen 4 years earlier.

In 1990-91, some 24 percent of regular public high schools (or 3,100 schools) were low-retention schools (5 percent retained between 10 and 50 percent of their students and 19 percent retained between 51 and 70 percent). The percentage of low-retention high schools declined to 22 percent in 1992-93 (2,800 high schools), then increased to 32 percent (4,600 high schools) in 2000-01 before declining to approximately 26 percent in 2005-06. The percentage then remained relatively sat 26 percent through 2009-10, when 4,100 high schools met the definition. Approximately 518,000 high school seniors attended low-retention high schools in 1990-91, compared to 845,000 in 2000-01 and 755,000 in 2009-10.

The status dropout rate represents the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential (either a diploma or an equivalency credential such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate). Based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), the status dropout rate declined from 12 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2010 (see indicator 33). Between 1990 and 2010, status dropout rates also declined for Whites (from 9 percent to 5 percent), Blacks (from 13 percent to 8 percent), and Hispanics (from 32 percent to 15 percent). Over this period, the status dropout rate was generally lowest for Asians/Pacific Islanders, followed by Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. The gap between Whites and Hispanics narrowed from 23 percentage points in 1990 to 10 percentage points in 2010; the gaps between Whites and Blacks in these two years were not measurably different (4 vs. 3 percentage points).

The averaged freshman graduation rate measures the percentage of public high school students who graduate on time with a regular diploma (see indicator 32). To do so, it uses an estimate of the number of regular diplomas issued in a given year divided by an estimate of the averaged enrollment base for the freshman class 4 years earlier. For each year, the averaged freshman enrollment base is the sum of the number of 8th-graders 5 years earlier, the number of 9th-graders 4 years earlier (when current-year seniors were freshmen), and the number of 10th-graders 3 years earlier, divided by 3. The intent of this averaging is to account for the high rate of grade retention in the freshman year, which adds 9th-grade repeaters from the previous year to the number of students in the incoming freshman class each year.

The overall averaged freshman graduation rate was higher for the graduating class of 2008-09 (75.5 percent) than it was for the graduating class of 1990-91 (73.7 percent). However, from school year 1990-91 to 1995-96, the overall averaged freshman graduation rate decreased from 73.7 percent to 71.0 percent. In terms of changes by state, there was an increase in the graduation rate in 30 states and the District of Columbia from school year 1990-91 to 2008-09. In 1 state (Vermont), the rate increased by more than 10 percentage points; in 6 others (Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia, rates increased by more than 5 percentage points. The graduation rate decreased from 1990-91 to 2008-09 in 20 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming), with decreases of greater than 5 percentage points occurring in New Mexico (5.3 percent), Wyoming (6.0 percent), and Nevada (20.7 percent).