WASHINGTON - Minneapolis schools' graduation rate ranks 45th among the nation's 50 largest cities, according to a study being released today by America's Promise Alliance, a drop-out prevention group founded by retired Gen. Colin Powell.

The study, called "Cities in Crisis," calculated Minneapolis' four-year graduation rate at 43.7 percent for the 2003-04 school year, more than 8 points below the 50-city average of 51.8.

Like much of the nation, the city's graduation rate lagged significantly behind its surrounding suburban communities, where average graduation rates hover above 80 percent.

But Minneapolis school officials sharply disputed the low ranking, noting that the America's Promise study was based on four-year-old U.S. Education Department data recorded before the federal No Child Left Behind standards were fully in effect.

"We've improved a lot since then," said David Heistad, the school system's director for research, evaluation and assessment.

Minneapolis' own data showed a graduation rate of 67.2 for the past academic year, up from 60.7 percent in 2005-06.

For 2003-04, the year America's Promise studied, the Minneapolis school system calculated its own graduation rate at 52.8 percent, about 9 percentage points higher than the study figure. Part of the difference, Heistad said, is that the study failed to take into account the city's high rate of students who move away or change schools.

Marguerite Kondracke, president and chief executive of the America's Promise Alliance, said one of the problems is that there is no national standard for measuring drop-out rates.

But, she added, "I don't care what data you use, the results are not acceptable."

National campaign

The America's Promise report, prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, is part of the start for a national campaign -- what Powell called a "call to arms" -- to reduce high school drop-out rates and prepare students for college. Nationwide, nearly one in three U.S. high school students drops out before graduating, or about 1.2 million students a year.

"When more than 1 million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe," Powell, a former U.S. secretary of state, said in statement released Monday. The problem is most pronounced in urban areas of the nation, including the Twin Cities.

For example, the study found that the average graduation rate in city and inner-ring suburban districts of the Twin Cities stood at 63.5 percent, compared with 80.7 for surrounding suburban districts. That 17-percentage-point gap put the Twin Cities in the middle of the national range.

St. Paul, which did not rank in the 50 largest cities by population, was not included in the study.

About 63 percent of St. Paul's public school class of 2001 graduated after four years of high school, according to a 2005 Citizens League study.

Like many other studies on high school drop-out rates, the America's Promise report found that the problem is most prevalent in minority and low-income populations, the same conclusion that Minneapolis school officials frequently cite to explain their overall graduation rates.

Heistad said that recent increases in Minneapolis graduation rates were driven by educational improvements by blacks and other minorities.

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753