A Closer Look: Why Some Cities Have Higher Graduation Rates Than Others

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The U.S. high school graduation rate rose to 83.2% in the 2014-2015 school year, a 4 percentage point increase from 2010-2011 when the states began using a consistent gauge of high school completion. 24/7 Wall St. recently reviewed the 25 U.S. metro areas with the highest graduation rates and the 25 with the lowest. Metro areas in Texas and Alabama are well-represented in the top 25, while municipalities in Florida, Oregon, and New Mexico occupy many of the lower spots.

To determine the graduation rates of U.S. metro areas, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Click here to see the 25 metro areas with the highest graduation rates.
Click here to see the 25 metro areas with the lowest graduation rates.

Here’s a closer look at what these areas have in common and the factors that might particularly contribute to a region’s ranking.

Five of the 25 metro areas with the highest graduation rates are in Texas: Wichita Falls, Sherman-Denison, Longview, Tyler, and Amarillo.

The Lone Star State in recent years has touted its elevated high school graduation rates, particularly among minority students.

“We really want to believe in Texas’ numbers because they’ve been consistent,’’ said Jennifer DePaoli, senior researcher and policy adviser at Civic Enterprises, a social enterprise organization that seeks initiatives for education, health, and other issues, who cited Iowa as an example. “But there are data concerns as to what they are counting as a graduate vs. a completer, which they are not supposed to count. It doesn’t mean these districts that are listed aren’t doing a phenomenal job. But with the overall rate, we tend to look at the rate hesitantly.’’

While completers do complete the requirements for a general education diploma (GED), they do not necessarily do so within the specified four years.

Alabama has four areas in the top 25: Dothan, Florence-Muscle Shoals, Anniston-Oxford-Jacksonville, and Huntsville.

Alabama ranked third in the nation in graduation performance, and that got the attention of the U.S. Department of Education last November, which confirmed that it was auditing the Alabama Department of Education. One of the red flags was that the student achievement and ACT (American College Testing) scores across Alabama were among the lowest in the country. Alabama’s state superintendent of education, Michael Sentance, said in December that the state had counted special-needs students who had earned a diploma, which it should not have done. And the state had also failed to cite districts for graduating students who hadn’t completed the requisite coursework.

The Florida areas with the lowest graduation rates on the list are Sebring, Lakeland-Winter Haven, Panama City, and Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach. The four Oregon areas are Grants Pass, Albany, Eugene, and Salem. New Mexico is represented by Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Farmington.

Florida and New Mexico are states that historically have had low graduation rates, according to DePaoli. Oregon and New Mexico are two states that in recent years have traded places as the state with the lowest graduation rates among all the states.

“Oregon has a lot of rural districts that don’t have a lot of resources. What we tend to see is in districts where poverty levels are very high, graduation rates are very low. Also, the state also has a pretty high Native American population. Those students, unfortunately, also tend to graduate at much lower rates.’’ The Oregon Department of Education acknowledged on its website the challenges of trying to narrow the learning gap between native students and their peers. “Whether native students are dropping out, or stepping out, the result is the same — low employment rates, depressed economic development, separatism, and poverty.’’