Graduation Rates Are Rising, but Too Many Students Are Still Falling Behind

03/20/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated May 20, 2015

This week we heard an encouraging announcement from the U.S. Department of Education that the achievement gap is narrowing, as graduation rates for black and Hispanic students went up almost 4 percentage points from 2011 to 2013 -- exceeding the growth rate for all U.S. students. This follows last month's news that the graduation rate reached a new high of 81 percent in the 2012-2013 academic year. But despite these promising numbers, there's still a lot of work to do. Even with these improvements, one in five students is still not graduating on time, and the graduation rate remains 13.4 percentage points lower for black and Hispanic students than for white students.

The progress we have made is the direct result of dedicated work, day in and day out, by educators and communities across the country. We should honor their commitment by advancing and strengthening programs that keep students from dropping out of school. Our successes have shown that achieving sustainable solutions requires getting to the source of the problem and mobilizing collective action around the country.

When any student drops out, the problem usually starts years before he or she attends their last class. Failure to achieve reading proficiency and absenteeism are key indicators that a student is off-track.

Community-based programs are working to solve systemic community challenges by increasing literacy rates at the elementary school level. Research has shown that children able to read at grade level by third grade are more likely to graduate high school on time. In St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, United Way invests in comprehensive strategies that help students learn to read, including one-on-one tutoring, parent engagement and early identification of student needs. An innovative partnership created with the St. Paul Public Schools supports one-on-one tutoring in more than 30 schools. This multi-year strategic effort includes programming based on best practices to drive educational achievement. As a result of this and other strategies focused on grade-level reading proficiency, United Way helped increase early grade literacy for nearly 6,400 students in 2013.

Elsewhere, programs are addressing absenteeism alongside literacy. To combat a significant chronic absence problem in Hartford, Connecticut, United Way and its Campaign for Grade-level Reading partners are supporting the schools in tracking the right data and have established a coordinated public campaign to raise awareness about the issue. Reflecting the broad-reaching nature of this effort, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy declared September as Attendance Awareness Month. And to help deliver the message that attendance and third-grade reading matter, United Way engaged parents at schools as attendance and early literacy "messengers" during family literacy festivals and community events.

These community solutions -- and others like them -- are essential to ensuring graduation rates continue to rise.

Also essential are national policies that support this work. We are encouraged by the recent momentum around the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) -- the law that governs the federal role in education in the United States -- in Congress. It is critical that reauthorization include policies and programs designed to ensure that students graduate from high school college- and career-ready. Reauthorization is also an important opportunity to ensure that community-based organizations are included as partners to help meet students' academic, developmental and social and emotional needs, and we look forward to the passage of this long-overdue update.

As a society, we can't afford not to take these steps. High school graduates earn higher wages and contribute more to their local economies. They are equipped with the skills that open doors for job opportunities and career growth and ensure that our country continues to compete -- and lead -- in the global knowledge economy. Closing the achievement gap, in particular, will broaden access to these opportunities and lay the groundwork for a robust future workforce.

What can you do? Find out what your local United Way is doing to advance education, and be part of that community change. You can connect with your local 2-1-1 to find out where to mentor a student, advocate for after-school programs or support a book drive. Change doesn't happen without you.