The good news in "Building a Grad Nation," a just-released study on graduation rates by the Alliance for Excellent Education, is that over the past decade the number of "dropout factories" decreased 29 percent nationwide, the first such "significant, sustained improvement" in 40 years. The U.S. is now on pace to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, a feat now achieved only in Wisconsin and Vermont.
The bad news is that here in the nation's capital, "the number of 'dropout factory' high schools ... shot up in the past decade, defying state trends nationwide," as The Washington Examiner's Matt Connolly reported Monday.
At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the first in which states were required to use the same formula to calculate graduation rates, only 59 percent of D.C. students who started off as ninth-graders in 2006 earned a diploma. That's the lowest graduation rate in the nation, and far below the national average of 78.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The District was losing ground even as graduation rates elsewhere, particularly in the South, were "rocketing" upward during a decade in which rising standards made it even more difficult to earn a diploma. As Connolly reported, D.C. had two "dropout factories" in 2002. Ten years later, there were 13.
A diploma is the culmination of 12 or more years of formal education. It's no coincidence that during that same 2010-2011 academic year, the percentage of D.C. graduates (59 percent) was identical to the percentage of eighth-graders testing proficient in math. Only 50 percent tested proficient in reading. Research has consistently found that reading proficiency by the end of third grade is a key indicator of high school graduation, but half of current D.C. sophomores have not acquired this basic skill. Twenty percent of D.C. students are chronically truant, another key indicator of students bound to drop out.
Another cohort of District youngsters remains at great risk of joining the undereducated, unskilled 16-to-24-year-olds "disconnected" from both school and work, and thus disproportionately represented in the city's crime and single-parent statistics. Many of them were raised by parents who were also cruelly let down by an education bureaucracy that spends more and does less than nearly any other school system in the nation.
But this colossal waste of tax dollars is nothing compared to the unconscionable toll this ongoing systemic failure continues to inflict on the lives of generations of D.C. residents.