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US high school dropout rate: high, but how high?

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The national dropout rate is notoriously hard to pin down, and the latest effort to do so – showing alarmingly low graduation rates in some parts of America – is likely to intensify the statistics wars.

Nearly 1 in 3 high school students in the Class of 2006 will not graduate this year, the Editorial Projects in Education (EDE) Research Center reported Tuesday.

The picture is worse for urban school districts, especially those serving poor students, the new study shows. Graduation rates in the largest school districts range from 21.7 percent in Detroit and 38.5 percent in Maryland's Baltimore County to 82.5 percent in Virginia's Fairfax County.

It's the first in an annual Graduation Project series, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The most detailed analysis covers the 2002-03 school year, using the most recent data available. A feature of the new study makes it possible for readers to create a report for each district, including comparisons with state and national figures.

"Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation. When 30 percent of our ninth-graders [ultimately] fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our ... future," says Christopher Swanson, director of the EDE Research Center.

The trouble is, it may not be accurate.

Some education groups praised the study as an important contribution to the field of dropout statistics. "It's going to help people understand that we can't deny or ignore this crisis anymore," says Ross Wiener of the Education Trust.

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