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US high school graduation rate climbs to 69.2 percent

From 1996 to 2006, rates exceeded expectations in many poor, urban districts, a new report finds.

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When high school seniors finally grasp their hard-earned diplomas, an average of 3 out of 10 classmates aren't beside them. In some communities in the United States, more than half of high-school students don't make it to graduation.

But despite the complex, stubborn problems behind those numbers, a new report shows a decade's worth of modest gains in graduation rates. In 1996, the national on-time graduation rate was 66.4 percent; by 2006, that figure had risen to 69.2 percent. Much greater gains were made by thousands of school districts, including some struggling with high levels of poverty.

The district-by-district analysis is part of "Diplomas Count 2009," the fourth annual report on graduation rates by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, a nonprofit in Bethesda, Md.

"The good news is that a large number of school districts are making progress in boosting graduation rates, but nationally we're still largely flat-lining ... so [there's] a lot more work to be done," says John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public-policy firm in Washington that has also studied dropouts.

As concerns mount about US competitiveness globally, the calls are becoming more urgent for improving high schools and ensuring that more students are ready to pursue further education or training. President Obama recently called on all Americans to complete at least one year of education beyond high school and cautioned that "dropping out of high school is no longer an option."

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