If you're a young American, graduating from high school makes an enormous difference in everything that follows. If you have that diploma, you can go to college, employers will look twice at you, and your lifetime earnings will be a lot higher than those of your age mates who lack that credential.

Yet the high school graduation rate has not been getting the attention it warrants. With the federal government reporting a completion rate of 86 percent, many people believe that today just about everyone in the United States makes it through high school except a smallish number of hapless "dropouts." Hence most educators and policymakers have shifted their attention to the high school–college transition and to college completion rates.

That shift is premature, according to a sobering new study of high school graduation rates by scholar Jay P. Greene, conducted on behalf of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Greene recalculates these rates using a simple but plausible method that discounts "equivalency certificates" (the so-called GED) and adjusts for distortions in the federal data. His conclusion: Only 74 percent of those who should have graduated from high school in 1998 actually did so.

Yet that's the good news. The chilling news is that just 56 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Latino youngsters received diplomas "on schedule" in 1998. This suggests an educational crisis among minority youths that's worse than most of us had realized. Although some of these boys and girls will end up with belated diplomas or GEDs, Greene's data show that nearly half of them are entering adulthood behind the educational eight ball.

High school completion rates also turn out to vary hugely by state and community. Ninety-three percent of Iowa's young people graduated in 1998, but only 57 percent of Georgia's did. Graduation rates among large school districts range from 82 to 87 percent in Albuquerque, Boston, and the Washington suburbs down to 47 percent in Chicago, 43 percent in Milwaukee, and a numbing 28 percent in Cleveland.

Although state and municipal differences are influenced by student demographics, Greene found that there's more to this story. For example, 85 percent of Boston's African American students graduate, but only 34 percent of black students in Louisville accomplish this. In El Paso two-thirds of Latinos graduate, but in Dallas less than two-fifths do so. Other factors are plainly at work besides race and ethnicity, factors having to do with the schools themselves.

Whereas graduation rates alone are not a satisfactory gauge of educational performance—it's possible to pump them up by making it easier to graduate—they're a telling clue as to whether an education system is succeeding. If just three-quarters of young Americans—and barely half of black and Latino students—are managing to graduate from high school on time, we've got a whopping problem. This one probably can't be solved by ratcheting up academic standards and or requiring more tests. Even at today's low levels, these methods are not yielding success for millions of young Americans.

overlay image