This week we learned that the high school graduation rate in the United States has reached 80 percent for the first time ever.

That's good news but there's still much work to be done to improve our standing in the global classroom.

Building a GradNation, a group of organizations dedicated to raising graduation rates, attributed the latest success to greater awareness of the issue, new accountability laws, the closure of under performing schools, improved "early-warning" systems that detect at-risk students and reforms that offer better chances to finish high school.

The 10 percent increase in graduations over the last decade was highlighted by strong gains among minority students. Wide disparities, however, remain among the states, where graduation rates ranging from a low of 62 percent in Nevada to a high of 88 percent in Iowa.

Pennsylvania's high school graduation rate of 84 percent ranks in the top half nationwide. Of the 67 Pennsylvania counties, Butler County schools rank first with a graduation rate of 94 percent. Schuylkill County schools rank 50th at 85 percent, Monroe is 48th at 86 percent and Carbon is 31st with an 88 percent rate.

There's also wide disparity in the nation's cities. Des Moines, Columbus and Houston have overall graduation rates of 79 percent, compared with 50 percent in Minneapolis and 51 percent in Atlanta. Schools in the District of Columbia were at 59 percent.

Not all the results can be blamed on socioeconomics. Some 75 percent of students in Columbus are poor, for instance, about the same percentage as Detroit, which has a 65 percent graduation rate.

Rick Hess, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says graduation and truancy rates reflect a positive step, but he's concerned that many students are finishing high school unprepared for what lies ahead. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, studies have shown 28 to 40 percent of first-time college students enroll in at least one remedial course. Other reports suggest many U.S. employees lack the skills needed for the modern workplace.

America's poor ranking on the global stage is another concern. A survey released last December showed U.S. teens ranked 36th in the world in math, reading and science. The results came from an assessment exam taken by more than half a million 15-year-olds from 65 countries across Europe, North and South America, Australia, Asia and parts of the Middle East.

A ranking of 36th in global education is hard to take, especially when you consider America spends more per student than all but five countries in the world.

This shows there's much more work to be done.

By Jim Zbick