WASHINGTON-- The nation's high school graduation rate is the highest since 1976, but more than 20% of students still are failing to get their diploma in four years, the Education Department said in a study released today.
Officials said the steady rise of students completing their education is a reflection of the struggling economy and a greater competition for new jobs.
"If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None. That wasn't true 10 or 15 years ago," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with the Associated Press.
The national dropout rate was about 3% overall, down from the year before. Many students who don't receive their diplomas in four years stay in school, taking five years or more to finish their coursework.
Some 3.1 million students nationwide earned their high school diplomas in the spring of 2010, with 78% of students finishing on time. That's the best since a 75% on-time graduation rate during the 1975-76 academic year.
Nationally, white and Asian and Pacific Islander students were among the least likely to leave school without a degree, with only 2% dropout rates.
Hispanic students posted a 5% dropout rate, followed by blacks at 6% and American Indians and Alaska Natives at 7%.
"There's no young person who aspires to be a high school dropout," Duncan said. "When someone drops out, it's a symptom of a problem. It's not the problem itself. Something has gone radically wrong."
There were tremendous differences among the states in 2010. Fifty-eight percent of students in Nevada and 60% in Washington, D.C., completed their high school education in four years.
By comparison, 91% of students in Wisconsin and Vermont did, according to the report.
Dropout ratesLook up high school dropout rates by school district. There are two different rates: A rate based on the number of 9th-12th grade students who dropped out in the 2009-10 school year, and an estimate of the percentage of students who would drop out in a four-year period based on data collected in 2009-10.
Source: California Department of Education
California, the nation's largest public school system, led the nation in new graduates in 2010, turning out almost 405,000.
It also produced the most dropouts: almost 93,000. That translated to a rate of about 5%, above the national average.
Dropout rates varied among some of the Valley's largest school districts in 2009-10. Fresno Unified, for example, reported a 5.8% dropout rate among 9-12th grade students. In Central Unified, the rate was 4.1% and Clovis Unified's rate was 1.2%, according to California Department of Education data.
Nationally, students were most likely to drop out of high school during their senior year, with roughly one in 20 quitting before graduation day.
In every state, males were more likely to drop out.
Arizona had the highest dropout rate, at 8%, followed by Mississippi at 7%. Washington, D.C., schools also posted a 7% dropout rate.
The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.