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HELENA — Nearly 25 percent of Montana's students do not earn a high school diploma, according to a report released Tuesday that puts the state's graduation rate far lower than some previous estimates.

The study, conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, shows Montana's overall graduation rate was 76 percent in 2002-2003, the most recent school year for which data was available, ranking the state 15th in the country. Nationally, 70 percent of students graduated that year.

Office of Public Instruction figures show an 84 percent state graduation rate in 2002-03, and other studies have put the state at 80 percent or higher.

OPI spokesman Joe Lamson did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

EPE Research Center staff said state-reported graduation rates were almost always higher than those in the report, and attributed the discrepancy to differences in the way graduation rates were calculated.

"Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation," said EPE Research Director Christopher B. Swanson, who oversaw development of the report. "When 30 percent of our ninth graders fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our country's future."

The study found more girls in Montana graduated than boys, 77 percent compared with 74 percent, and that the lowest graduation rates were among American Indian students. Just 45 percent of Indian students graduated in 2002-03, compared with 79 percent of white students, the report stated.

The EPE Research Center is a division of Editorial Projects in Education Inc., publisher of Education Week, a newspaper that covers pre-collegiate education.

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