America's ornery dropout problem has been called an "epidemic" and a "crisis," and while an advocacy group founded by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell say they remain appropriate labels, the group will announce some good news on that front Tuesday.
The report by America's Promise Alliance says the national high school graduation rate rose from 72 percent to 75 percent from 2002 to 2008. In that same period, the report said, the number of high-failure schools, commonly dubbed "dropout factories," fell by more than 13 percent.
"Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic" still paints a grim national picture - each year, more than 1 million youths fail to graduate with their high school classes.
"America still faces a dropout crisis, but this report shows why there is reason to be hopeful," said Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, where Mr. Powell and his wife, Alma, serve as founding chairman and current chairwoman.
It also credits the progress to school reforms such as statewide performance standards, tracking student performance over time, and assistance to struggling schools, and concerted public-private efforts such as mentoring programs.
"Certain communities have made big progress in a short time, and they can share their lessons with others," Mrs. Kondracke said. "But the major discovery in the report is that when administrators, teachers, community officials, state governments, parents and business leaders work together, schools can be transformed."
According to the report, there were more than 250 fewer "dropout factories" - those high schools, mostly in urban and poor rural areas, with consistently low graduation rates - in 2008 (1,746) than there were in 2002 (2,007).
A dropout factory was defined as a school where no more than 60 percent of students graduate on time.
The largest drop took place in the South, with Texas and Tennessee leading the way with declines in both big-city and small-town "dropout factories" in the six-year period the report covers.
The figures were not so good in Maryland, with the number rising from 17 in 2002 to 27 six years later. Virginia's number, meanwhile, fell from 26 to 25.
The District of Columbia was not included in the report because it is not a state. But city officials earlier this year touted some success in turning around low-performing schools, raising test scores and lowering dropout rates.
When Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee took over in 2007, the D.C. dropout rate was at 50 percent, but now is closer to 47 percent. She also reconstituted troubled schools with new teachers and principals, and turned over others over to successful charter school operators. Although D.C. students still lag behind their national peers in proficiency on standardized math and reading tests, fourth-grade scores rose 5 percentage points during Ms. Rhee's tenure.
As for graduation rates, the numbers still look bleak for minorities, especially when measured against the goal of both the Obama administration and America's Promise Alliance to reach a 90 percent graduation rate nationwide by 2020. Nearly four in 10 black, Hispanic and American Indian students fail to graduate on time.
Researchers point out that regardless of race, youths show signs of being potential dropouts, such as chronic truancy or course failure, in middle school - and that this is the target group.
Since students don't suddenly unlearn how to read or calculate, the study urged school reformers to focus on using early warning data to strengthen the "rocky transition" from grade school and middle school to high school.
Public-private partnerships help in a big way, researchers said, citing such organizations as Diplomas Now, which helps turn around schools in metropolitan areas, a major area of concern since graduation rates in America's 50 largest cities average only 50 percent.
As Congress and the White House ponder reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, "Build a Grad Nation" also urged support for several pieces of legislation, including the Success in the Middle Act "to improve the performance of the middle schools that feed into the dropout factory high schools, including support for the development of early warning data and intervention systems."
With schools and students moving in the right direction, now is the time to pick up the pace and surge forward with "more boots on the ground," education leaders said.
"Public schools are showing improvement thanks to reforms and other efforts that have been put in place, but we need to dramatically increase the pace of progress," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
"Ending the dropout crisis is within reach," said John Bridgeland, CEO of the District-based public-policy firm Civic Enterprises, which co-wrote the "Build a Grad Nation" report with Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center.
"We now know why students drop out and what can keep them on track. With better data and accountability across schools and states, the spread of early warning systems, unprecedented federal support to transform dropout factories and nonprofits mobilizing more boots on the ground to support students, we can keep more young people on the path to success."
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