The states with the top five and bottom five graduation rate goals.
The states with the top five and bottom five graduation rate goals.

A new report from Education Trust, the D.C.-based think tank (PDF), lays out all 50 states’ target graduation rates for high schools. As the graph above shows, New York’s 55% rate comes in at the bottom of the list, sneaking in right above Nevada, whose target is 50%.

The targets are required by the No Child Left Behind law, which forces states to determine whether every one of their high schools is meeting standards or not. To meet standards, high schools must either meet their state’s specific graduation rate target — the figures featured in the chart — or, barring that, meet an improvement goal.

If a school doesn’t meet the standard, consequences can be strict; in New York, punishments include forcibly shutting schools down and reopening them under a new leadership and structure.

The improvement goals are sometimes shockingly low. More than half of all states allow any progress at all, or simply that a school does not let its graduation rate drop from where it was the year before. Others require the rate to go up by at least 0.01 percentage point.

New York in this regard is remarkable for setting a target increase of 0.1 percentage point.

The Education Trust report argues that these targets are “entirely too low.”

States have the discretion to set their own goals and targets. But rather than setting high expectations, the vast majority of states set them entirely too low, making it acceptable for schools to graduate low percentages of students.

The report encourages state leaders to set higher graduation rate goals. In a special list of recommendations for governors, it suggests a few ways that governors could highlight the importance of making sure more students finish high school, including raising the subject in a “State of the State” speech.

In his tenure so far, Governor Paterson has made some gestures like that, including organizing a summit on dropout prevention earlier this month.