While much of the nation continues to make progress in reducing the number of high school dropouts, Arkansas is an exception, according to an annual report that tracks the graduation rates of schools across the country. The 2012 report, "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic," shows that Arkansas is one of only 10 states which saw declines in their graduation rates between 2001 and 2009.

While much of the nation continues to make progress in reducing the number of high school dropouts, Arkansas is an exception, according to an annual report that tracks the graduation rates of schools across the country. The 2012 report, “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic,” shows that Arkansas is one of only 10 states which saw declines in their graduation rates between 2001 and 2009.

The rate is determined by comparing the number of ninth-grade students who earn a diploma in four years. Arkansas’ rate was 74.8 percent in 2002, but it dropped to 74 percent in 2009, The latter is not a bad percentage compared to the national average of 75.5 percent, but it came at a time when many states were showing significant increases — enough to lift the national norm by nearly 3 percent.

Neighbor Tennessee had the biggest jump in the nation — from 59.6 to 77.4 percent. Missouri went from 76.8 to 83.1 percent. Mississippi showed a small increase, but its 62 percent replaced Tennessee as lowest of all states. One state, Wisconsin, climbed above 90 percent, which was set as the “gold standard” by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization established in 1997 with a top priority of improving graduation rates.

If each state had a graduation rate of 90 percent, the Grad Nation report said, 580,000 additional students would have graduated with the class of 2011. That alone would have had a dramatic effect on the nation’s economy, as well as the financial well-being of those additional graduates.

The Arkansas page of the report says that roughly 11,400 students in Arkansas did not graduate from high school with the class of 2011. In Arkansas a high school graduate earns on the average $5,339 more each year than a high school dropout. The alliance also advocates getting high school students ready for college, and the Arkansas page estimates that the state could save $50 million a year on college remediation costs and lost earnings if all high school graduates were ready for college work.

We’re a long way from that, though. In the class of 2011 only 61 percent of those tested for college work were ready for college English courses; only 33 percent were ready for college math courses. So for now improving the graduation rate is a good top priority. In March a group of educators from Arkansas attended the Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C., and met with representatives of the state’s congressional delegation. Among the group was Sally L. Wilson of Osceola, who has been involved in a couple of charter school efforts there. She said the state Department of Education this summer will require all public high schools to use the “adjusted cohort rate” of calculating graduation rates — comparing the number of 12th graders who earn degrees to the number that started in either the ninth or 10 grades.

“I think there may be a shock wave across the state this summer when the public sees the corrected and true high school graduation rates,” she said in an e-mail about the summit. “Currently, only about 7 out of every 10 ninth graders in our public high schools nationwide (as well as Arkansas) will graduate in four years. Arkansans are about to know this truth.”

“In Arkansas, up until now, local superintendents have bragged to have ‘92 percent’ or ‘96 percent’ graduation rates,: she continued. “But they were using their 12th-grade completion rate as their graduation rate (comparing the number count of seniors in October to the number that walk across the stage seven months later).”

Wilson predicted that the new rates will leave many superintendents “scrambling with damage control.” One of the most interesting revelations in the Grad Nation report is that a disproportionate number of the students who fail to finish high school come from so-called “dropout factories.”

The 2002 report identified 2,007 high schools with graduation rates of 60 percent or lower, accounting for more than 40 percent of all the nation’s dropouts. The research indicates these schools tend to be urban and to have high percentages of minority students enrolled. By 2010, the number of “dropout factories” had declined nationally to 1,550. Unfortunately, the number in Arkansas increased from five to 12. An additional 20 high schools were between 60 and 70 percent.

Wilson said she is hopeful that members of the group who went to the summit will be able to convince legislators and leaders of the state Department of Education to make meaningful changes. One of the group, in fact, is a lawmaker — state Rep. Ann Clemmer of Little Rock, a college professor. We’re making some progress on college graduation rates, but we can’t forget about getting our students out of high school first.

• • •

Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.