Minnesota high school graduation rates edged up last year, with steady gains in struggling metropolitan districts and significant improvement among students of color.

More than 81 percent of public high school students graduated on time in 2014, compared with 79.8 percent the year before, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Black students have made significant gains in graduation rates over the past five years, chipping away at a crucial aspect of the state’s yawning achievement gap between white and minority children. English learners, students in low-income households and Hispanics all posted improved graduation rates.

“It is incredibly heartening to see our graduation rates continue on an upward trend,” Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said after releasing the statewide data Tuesday.

The improvement comes after state officials intensified efforts to support students on their path to career and college, Cassellius said, and the data show “it is working.”

Despite the gains, however, the state is in danger of falling short of its goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

Public school critics say that state officials are trying to overshadow the fact that Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students have some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.

“We should be focused on addressing that tragedy, rather than celebrating hollow improvements,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which has advocated for better education.

Gains, dips

Minneapolis Public Schools saw its largest single-year increase in high school completion since 2010, including double-digit gains for Washburn High School. The jump marks a 10-point rise for the district since 2010, to 58.7 percent.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar declined to comment. In a letter to teachers, he applauded the district’s gains, but said, “moving forward, we must build on this growth, acting with a sense of urgency to reach our vision of making every student college and career ready after high school.”

St. Paul Public Schools’ graduated 75.6 percent of its students, up 2 percentage points from 2013. Other metro districts, such as Anoka-Hennepin and Bloomington, were flat compared with 2013.

In addition to modest gains for Minneapolis and St. Paul, some urban charter schools saw big increases in the number of students finishing on time.

El Colegio Charter School in south Minneapolis more than tripled its graduation rate, one of the largest jumps in the state by percentage. But the school is still only graduating 23.1 percent of its students.

Norma Garcés, the school’s executive director, said the multilingual high school has made many changes in the past four years, such as a heavier emphasis on explaining graduation requirements, focusing on diversity issues and increasing the number of Spanish-speaking staff. The school serves mostly low-income Hispanic families.

When students can relate to their teachers, their chances of success of higher, Garcés said.

“[Students] come from places that have very low expectations of them,” she said.

Garcés acknowledges that the school still has to make significant gains.

“We have a lot of things against us,” Garcés said.

Other districts that saw significant gains were Red Wing, which saw a 12.5 point increase in high school completion. St. Anthony-New Brighton increased its graduation rate by more than 10 points.

Some districts, especially smaller ones, saw a decrease in students getting a diploma.

International Falls dropped 10 percentage points, to 81 percent. Faribault graduated 73.7 percent of its students, down more than four points from 2013.

Cassellius said that districts and schools that fall under a 60 percent graduation rate will continue to need more attention. In 2013, Cassellius and other state officials set goals for the state, schools and students of color. By 2020, the state should have an overall 90 percent rate. For students of color, graduation rates should be at least 85 percent.

Gains for students of color

Asian students have had some of the strongest gains. Fully 81.7 percent of those students graduated, compared with 70 percent in 2010. In Minneapolis, Asian students have for the first time surpassed white students completing high school on a percentage basis.

Eden Prairie increased graduation of its black students by 11 points to 69.8 percent. Minneapolis saw a two-point jump from those students. Edina saw a steep drop of 10 percentage points for black student graduation. In 2013, black students had higher graduation rates than the district’s white students. Now, they are the lowest-performing group.

Edina did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Overall, black and Hispanic students have also seen significant gains, with 10- to 14-point increases in the past five years. If that rate of growth continues, the state could come close to meeting its goal for minority students.

But American Indian students have not fared as well. Graduation rates have only increased 6 percentage points in the past five years. This year, most major districts saw decreases or no gains in high school completion for American Indians compared to 2013.

The Onamia School District, whose student population is 41 percent American Indian, saw a 26 percentage point decrease in graduation. Red Lake’s district saw a 4.8-point drop for its American Indian students. In metro districts, Minneapolis had a four-point dip in American Indian graduations. St. Paul saw virtually no change, and Anoka-Hennepin saw a nearly five-point dip.

“I am not satisfied with those results for American Indian students,” Cassellius said. “This is a critical issue for us moving forward.”

She noted that on Wednesday a state working group, convened by Gov. Mark Dayton, is poised to release recommendations on how to increase student achievement for American Indians.

“We must provide all our students with the quality educations and the support they need to graduate,” Dayton said in a statement.