Minnesota high school graduation rates continued to tick up in 2017, but progress stalled in closing a wide gap between the rates for whites and students of color.
A record nearly 83 percent of students graduated from high school on time last year, according to data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education. That’s an overall gain of about 5 percentage points during the past five years.
Yet a gap of almost 19 percentage points still separates the graduation rates of white students and their peers of color. Only about half of American Indian students graduated on time last year; roughly two-thirds of black and Latino students did, compared with more than 88 percent of whites.
But the state has made marked gains toward closing those gaps since 2012, with students of color showing more pronounced gains than their white peers over time.
“While our graduation rates have continued to climb and gaps are narrowing, we have too many students who are not receiving a diploma,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said, adding that much work remains to reduce disparities.
Graduation rates for low-income, special education, migrant and homeless students, as well as English learners also lagged significantly behind the state average.
In Minneapolis, about two-thirds of students overall graduated on time in 2017 — a 1-percentage-point dip — placing the district just shy of the bottom for metro graduation rates. But that’s still up about 14 percentage points over five years ago, representing one of the biggest gains of any Twin Cities district.
St. Paul graduation rates inched up to 77 percent, and the districts made modest headway toward reducing disparities for students of color. In both urban districts, rates remained lowest for blacks and American Indians, while Latino students made significant gains in recent years.
Districts in the west and north suburbs led the metro pack in overall graduation rates: The St. Anthony-New Brighton district graduated almost 98 percent of its students on time last year and posted the largest gains in the past five years. Minnetonka, Orono and Edina followed closely behind.
On the flip side, Brooklyn Center ranked at the bottom of the metro, with half of students graduating in four years. There, officials noted that a majority of students attend two alternative high schools, including a statewide online program loosely affiliated with the district. They noted the district’s traditional high school outperformed the state as a whole.
The state Education Department touted a decrease in the percentage of high school graduates who took remedial classes at Minnesota colleges and universities over the past five years — a sign that more students are leaving high school ready to tackle college. But those rates remain high, particularly for some students of color: In 2016, more than 40 percent of black high school graduates took such courses, which have been shown to reduce the odds of finishing college.
Because of federal education law changes, the state tweaked the way it calculates graduation rates. Changes included adding categories for students who identify as two or more races, migrant students and those who experience homelessness. The education department recalculated rates for the past five years using the new approach for an accurate comparison.
In an interview, Cassellius voiced confidence that the state can meet ambitious graduation goals it set last year: a 90 percent statewide rate and racial group rates of at least 85 percent by 2020. She singled out notable gains in recent years for the new category of multiracial students. She also highlighted a plan to extend state support this spring to more high schools with lagging graduation rates, reserved until now for schools with high numbers of low-income students.
“We need to keep pressing the accelerator down to make sure every kid graduates on time and ready,” she said.
In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton called the report great news for the state even as he acknowledged that “unacceptable disparities” remain.
In Minneapolis, Superintendent Ed Graff highlighted the “on track” program, which uses attendance, behavior and grades to promptly identify struggling students, who are then put on a help plan. He also noted the credit-recovery efforts that helped more than 2,000 students earn course credits during the school break.
Michael Thomas, chief of academics, leadership and learning, noted the district’s high number of English language learners and students with disabilities who struggle to graduate in four years and touted increases in the district’s seven-year rate, to 73 percent in 2017 — data the state released for the first time this year.
Still, a 28 percentage-point graduation rate disparity between white and minority students persists. Graff acknowledged that the district must redouble efforts to narrow that gap and ensure graduating students are ready for college and jobs.
In St. Paul, officials noted that American Indian, Latino, black, and homeless students, as well as English language learners and those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, outperformed state averages for those groups. They highlighted a “check and connect” approach in which social workers and other mentors check in regularly with special education high schoolers at risk for dropping out; the district also has worked to open opportunities to earn college credit to more high school students.
A push is underway to improve graduation rates for American Indian students, officials said, and the district plans to keep closer track of its five- and seven-year rates.
“For some students, four years to graduate is an arbitrary and even inappropriate bar,” said Joe Munnich, assistant director of research, evaluation and assessment for the St. Paul district.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school system, saw a 2 percentage point drop in its graduation rate, from the 2015-2016 school year to last year, though the district noted that its students of color outperformed state averages.
According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, about 70 percent of the state’s students enroll in college in the fall immediately after graduation. In 2016, that number was 72 percent of white students compared to 61 percent of students of color.
“It’s important to note that disparities that are happening in K-12 are also happening in higher education,” said Meredith Fergus, manager of financial aid research for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.