Kentucky public schools continue to show improvement in a "cautiously optimistic" report on U.S. high school graduation rates being released Tuesday.
Kentucky's average graduation rate for the class of 2006 was 72.0 percent, the report says, exceeding the national average of 69.2 percent for that year. Kentucky's rate improved by 9 percentage points between 1996 and 2006, the report said.
When 2006 graduation rates were broken down by gender and race, Kentucky equalled or exceeded national averages in all categories except for African-Americans, according to the report.
The information is contained in Diplomas Count 2009: Broader Horizons: The Challenge of College Readiness for All Students, prepared by Education Week magazine and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
Diplomas Count 2009 lists 33 "overachiever" school districts around the country whose 2006 graduate rates exceeded anticipated levels by 10 percentage points or more.
One of the districts cited is Paducah Independent Schools, which had a 75 percent graduation rate for 2006, 11 points higher than anticipated.
The report said the nation's high school graduation rate has improved steadily over the last decade, but it noted that the rate fell by more than 1 percentage point from 2005 to 2006. That decline — the first notable reduction in a decade — is a cause for concern, study authors said.
"The nation is failing to reach a level necessary to put the United States on a solid footing in a competitive global market," said Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. "However, the longer-term trajectory of change for the country's graduation rate does offer some reason to be cautiously optimistic."
Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky education advocacy group, said Kentucky's progress reflects efforts dating back years.
"We made more progress than most other states," Heine said Monday. "In the last couple of years, there's been a real push to improve graduates rates in Kentucky. School districts are paying more attention to it and trying more new strategies to increase rates. I think it's beginning to pay off."
The Diplomas Count report said that, overall, Kentucky's 72 percent graduation rate for 2006 ranked 27th among the states and the District of Columbia.
New Jersey led the country with an 82.1 percent graduation rate for 2006.
Nevada had the lowest, with a rate of just 47.3 percent. Fewer than 6 in 10 public high school students graduated in 2006 in Nevada, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Florida and New Mexico, the Diplomas Count report said.
The study's authors further noted than an estimated 1.3 million U.S. high school students are projected to fail to graduate in the 2009 school year. That amounts to almost 7,200 students a day nationwide falling out of the "graduation pipeline," the study says.
The Diplomas Count report estimates that an average of 90 students will drop out each day in Kentucky in 2009.
But Susan Weston, who writes the Prichard Blog for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said Monday that she thinks the number of Kentucky drop-outs is significantly lower than that.
Weston says that, based on her analysis of census data, she thinks Kentucky's drop-out number is closer to 50 a day.
"That's still not OK," she said. "We have a graduation problem; we are not graduating enough kids. But I think we're overestimating how many are not graduating."
Kentucky also scored well in last year's Diplomas Count report, recording the nation's third highest gain in high school diplomas awarded from 2001 to 2005.
High school graduation rates for the 2005-06 school year
Highest: New Jersey82.1 percent
Lowest: Nevada47.3 percent