WASHINGTON -- The high school graduation rate for young Americans rose slightly to a record 86.5 percent last year, the Education Department reported Thursday. Hispanic, black and low-income students lagged behind whites and the well-to-do.
Education Secretary Rod Paige said rates had not risen in proportion to the billions of dollars spent on schools since the 1970s. "The study released today is another indicator that we have not made enough progress in recent years to improve access to quality education and that comprehensive change is needed," Paige said.
After sliding a bit in the mid-1990s, the overall percentage of students who finished high school or earned equivalency diplomas has inched up in the past three years, from 84.8 percent in 1998 to 85.9 percent in 1999 and 86.5 percent in 2000. The highest previous rate was 86.4 percent in 1992.
Missouri's graduation average was 92.6 percent, while Illinois' was 87.1 percent.
In 1972, the earliest year studied, the rate was 82.8 percent.
Nationwide, minority students' completion rates have risen, too, but have lagged behind that of white students, whose 2000 rate was 91.8 percent. The rate for black students was 83.7 percent; for Hispanic students the rate was 64.1 percent.
The statistic measures the percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds who have graduated from high school or earned a GED. Compiled as part of the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey each October, it is considered one important measure of national dropout figures.
Using another measure, researchers said about five of every 100 students ages 15 to 24 dropped out of school between October 1999 and October 2000, a figure that has remained fairly steady since 1987.
The dropout rate for the poorest 20 percent of students was six times that of the wealthiest 20 percent. About 10 percent of the poorest students dropped out of school between 1999 and 2000; in the same period, only 1.6 percent of the wealthiest students dropped out.
Wrong school priorities
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who has pushed for dropout prevention legislation for several years, said the dropout rate remains stubbornly high largely because keeping students in school isn't a priority for many school districts.
"We have too many large schools, particularly large high schools, but also large middle schools, where kids are lost track of, essentially," he said. "And we need to put a real focus on it."
The Senate last spring passed an education bill that includes Bingaman's proposal to create an office of dropout prevention at the Education Department. It would give money to school districts that use proven strategies to keep students in school.
The House-passed bill has no such proposal.