Even in today’s hot employment market, it’s tough for those without a high school diploma to find a well-paying job. And it’s widely acknowledged that 12th grade completion simply lays the foundation for the postsecondary credential needed for those jobs.
That’s why it’s heartening news for individual students as well as Minnesota that more young people are taking that first step toward economic success. This week, the state Department of Education (MDE) reported that just over 83% of state teens completed high school in 2018 — a record high and up about a half a percentage point over the previous year.
As has been the case for several years, the graduation data showed varying levels of progress across the board for all student groups — certainly a positive trend. However, a deeper analysis of the graduation figures — combined with the most recent statewide test scores and proficiency levels — reveals continuing wide disparities between student groups.
Just last fall, MDE reported that math and reading scores remained relatively flat and that little change had occurred with persistent racial and income-related disparities. Reading scores remained in a holding pattern; only 60% of students met reading standards for proficiency, and math score proficiency declined from 59% in 2016-17 to 57% for 2017-18. Troubling 35 to 38 percentage-point differences remain between white and black students in reading and math — and those gaps were even larger in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Clearly, still more must be done to improve academic achievement and narrow those differences.
Some of the answers lie in the success stories that the data reveal. At Twin Cities-area high schools with significant graduation gains, some officials touted the impact of making the school climate more welcoming, while others found that an early, individualized focus on struggling students improves learning.
This week’s data showed that more than 88% of white students received diplomas in four years. By comparison, the graduation rate among black students rose to just over 67%, a 3 percentage-point gain over the previous year. About two-thirds of Hispanic students and just over half of American Indian students graduated.
That’s better than previous years, but not good enough. The state and its districts must to do a better job of expanding effective instructional models that work for the most challenged student populations. Education leaders should also intervene more quickly to revamp or close programs or schools that aren’t working for students.
To that end, it’s encouraging that Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, the state’s new schools chief, has visited districts that have successfully narrowed their achievement gaps and intends to share those strategies statewide. The previous administration made similar efforts, and if it is demonstrated that they work, those initiatives should be expanded.
“I am proud that the graduation gap is closing, but I am not satisfied,” Ricker said after the new data became available. “As we move forward, I am eager to partner with communities across our state to better support all of our students.”
Minnesota families and employers shouldn’t be satisfied, either. They need to see effective, innovative education strategies put to work to narrow and close achievement disparities.