The graduation rate for Minnesota students is the highest it's been in a decade, even though many minority students continue to lag behind their white peers when it comes to getting a diploma on time, new state data show.

About 79 percent of all students graduated in 2013, up from 72 percent in 2003. Last year, 85 percent of white students, 56 percent of black students and 58 percent of Hispanic students graduated, according to data released Wednesday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

State education leaders said they are encouraged by the new data, which show minority students making big gains from year to year. The graduation rate for black students rose almost 6 percentage points from 2012 to 2013. That increase is five times the progress made by white students.

"We are not only seeing a higher graduation rate for all students, but increases in the number of students graduating in every single group," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "These increases are the result of targeted investments by Governor Mark Dayton and the Legislature, as well as greater accountability for schools ... and the incredible work being done each and every day by Minnesota's educators."

Cassellius said the graduation data suggest that the state's goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017 appears "doable."

That ambitious goal is spelled out in the state's waiver from No Child Left Behind, the federal education law many educators believed placed shackles on struggling schools and overemphasized standardized testing.

When asked to explain the dramatic increase in the statewide graduation rate, Cassellius cited the waiver, which establishes a school accountability system that lends support to struggling schools, makes more nuanced data available to educators and places a premium on closing the state's stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students.

Republican lawmakers, however, seized the opportunity to assert that the GRAD test was responsible for increasing the number of students who graduate from Minnesota schools. Legislators voted last year to scrap that test, which students had been required to pass to graduate, and to replace it with one that assesses whether they are ready for college. Students will begin taking the new exam during the 2015-16 school year.

"I would argue these results show the GRAD test was working," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.

The uptick in graduation rates mirrors a national trend that shows more high school students graduating. Last year, about 78 percent of high school students nationwide graduated on time, the highest graduation rate in almost 40 years.

Gains in the metro

Several metro-area districts saw dramatic increases in their graduation rates.

Richfield Public Schools, for example, saw its graduation rise from 65 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2013. That increase was the biggest overall jump among Twin Cities schools, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

"We have very high expectations for all of our kids," said Richfield High School Principal Jason Wenschlag. "At the same time, we really make an effort to get to know our kids and what their needs are."

St. Paul Public Schools saw its graduation rate increase from 68 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2013. Its 2013 graduation rate for black students at six of the district's high schools is 13 to 31 percentage points higher than the state average for black students. Similarly, the district's graduation rates for students who are learning English eclipses the state average.

"We are seeing that when you raise up the struggling students, all student performance rises," said Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Led by a much stronger graduation showing by its American Indian, Latino and black students, Minneapolis Public Schools posted its second consecutive year of steady gains in its four-year graduation rate.

The district saw an overall increase in its graduation rate from 51.8 percent in 2012 to just under 54 percent in 2013. Much of the improvement was posted by American Indian students, who gained from 26.9 percent to 33.7 percent; black students, whose graduation rate rose from 38 to 43.6 percent, and Latino students, who jumped from 37 to 41.3 percent.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis' Asian students held steady at 68 percent, while white student graduation fell slightly to 72.1 percent, a 1.2 percentage point drop.

The news of gains among American Indian students is particularly encouraging for the district, given years of trying different approaches to raising their academic standing. Gaines by black student are particularly important for the district, given that they represent the largest district's racial-ethnic bloc of students.

"People believe that we can do it," said Michael Goar, the district's chief executive officer. "This is a positive sign. Sometimes I feel like we have a belief gap." 612-673-4469 • 612-673-4438