Darron Cummings  /  AP
A student works on a project that will earn high school and college credits at Richmond High School in Richmond, Ind. Named a dropout factory in 2007, the school worked with parents and the county's leaders to create tutoring programs for struggling students.
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updated 11/30/2010 12:26:39 PM ET 2010-11-30T17:26:39

The number of so-called "dropout factory" high schools in the United States has declined since 2002, translating into at least 100,000 more students getting a diploma, a new report shows.

But the report from America's Promise Alliance released Tuesday also said that progress needs to increase fivefold for the country to graduate nine out of 10 students by 2020, a goal of the Obama administration.

States including Tennessee, Texas, New York and Georgia have already figured out tactics that work. But fixing the problem won't be easy, said report co-author John Bridgeland.

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"It's a targeted problem — we know the schools, we have data on the students and research tells us what works to keep them on track," said Bridgeland, CEO of education research group Civic Enterprises. "The dropout problem is a fixable problem. We now have the secret sauce to fix it."

The number of dropout factories — where fewer than 60 percent of students who started as freshmen remain enrolled four years later — fell nationally from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008, the most recent data available show. At the same time, the nation's graduation rate rose from 72 to 75 percent between 2001 and 2008, with more than half of states increasing their graduation rates.

That occurred even as states continued to toughen their curriculums and tests and require students to take more math and science than ever before.

So what's working?

In Georgia, graduation coaches were placed in high schools to help guide students who were on the verge of dropping out. Tennessee and West Virginia passed laws that take driver's licenses away from students who drop out. Louisiana, South Carolina and Alabama have developed early warning systems that flag students who are struggling in elementary and middle school.

More than 30 states have raised the compulsory attendance age to 17 or 18 as a way to ensure students graduate.

New York City broke giant high schools up into smaller academies, giving students — especially those from high poverty backgrounds who are less likely to finish school — more individual attention.

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In Richmond, Ind., the community was outraged when its one high school was named a dropout factory in 2007. The school worked with parents and the county's leaders to create tutoring programs for struggling students, focus on helping ninth-graders acclimate to high school and push alternative classes such as dual enrollment where students earn both high school and college credit.

Now the graduation rate at Richmond High School is more than 80 percent — up from 53 in 2006 — and more than 75 percent of students attend college.

"It was an all-out effort," Principal Barb Bergdoll said. "We really had to do a self-evaluation and say, 'Where do we need to apply some extra effort and make this better for our kids?'"

'Solutions exist'
America's Promise Alliance — the education advocacy organization started by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife — joined with Johns Hopkins University education researcher Robert Balfanz and Bridgeland's organization to produce the study, a follow up to Balfanz's 2007 report that coined the term "dropout factories."

The study calculates graduation rates by a federally approved formula based on the percentage of students who graduate high school four years after they enter.

It shows that despite the progress, more than 2 million students still attend a high school where they only have a 50-50 chance of graduating. And nearly all high-poverty urban districts have graduation rates that lag behind the national average.

For years, states calculated graduation rates in different ways, making it nearly impossible to compare among them. And many schools didn't keep proper records of which students dropped out and which simply transferred to another school, creating unreliable statistics.

But by next year, all states will be required to use a uniform calculation based on the number of graduating students compared to the freshmen who started at the school four years earlier — with adjustments made for transfer students. And most states will have a student tracking system that ensures schools know which students are transfers and which are dropouts.

Balfanz said the research points to what works, which means the biggest hurdle now is executing those solutions on a large scale. He said large federal programs like Race to the Top — which gave $4 billion to states willing to adopt innovative programs for schools — and state-developed uniform standards for math and English will help speed up the process.

"This smashes the myth that these schools are unfixable," Balfanz said of the study. "We know the solutions exist. It's just getting those solutions to the schools and kids with the intensity and scale required."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Powell: 'We're on our way' to fewer dropouts

  1. Closed captioning of: Powell: 'We're on our way' to fewer dropouts

    >>> there's a rare bit of good plus to report tonight on the high school dropout rate as part of our ongoing coverage of education nations. the number of high schools in the u.s. that are known in the trade as drop-out factories where 40% or more of the students fail to graduate, has been reduced by 13%. and while the number of dropouts is down by only 3%, it's progress and it indicates the nation may have already hit rock bottom , the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people and groups, including the america's promise alliance chaired by colin powell and his wife, alma. they spoke in washington today and later they spoke exclusively with us. the mission is to give every young person in america a high school diploma for openers.

    >> and that's a big goal. it's a goal that frankly is achievable if we all come together and put all our resources into the challenge. it will take a long time to get us back to where we need to be. but we're off. we're starting and as you heard from today's report, we're on our way to fixing this problem. but let not anyone think that the problem is going to be fixed in a year. it will take years, as it took years to get where we are.

    >> no. we're hoping in ten year's time we'll have cut the dropout rate in half and maybe with better statistics than that but we're aiming to cut it in half.

    >> general i have to ask you a question that blends politics and education. you saw the results of the midterm elections and we're going to have divided government here. not everyone agrees on the philosophy of the obama administration, secretary duncan, " race to the top ," extending what they have the way they spent it. what's the chance that after this progress you're announcing today, politics enters and fights begin over funding and progress gets either delayed or sidelined?

    >> i'm confident we'll see bipartisan support for this effort. we saw it in the bush administration with the initiatives that he put in place. and we're seeing it with president obama and especially, under the distinguished leadership of secretary duncan. the challenge can we're in a fiscal crisis. some of our school systems are cutting back on teachers and funding for facilities. the challenge will be -- how do we spend the limited dollars that will be available to us in the years ahead?

    >> former secretary of state colin powell and his wife, alma, with us from washington.

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