Minnesota's high school graduation rate dipped slightly in 2021, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education that reflects how students fared during the height of the pandemic.

About 83% of seniors graduated on time last year, a half-percentage-point drop from 2020.

Nearly every student group posted a dip in the percentage graduating on time in 2021, and stubborn achievement gaps persisted. But Black students posted a slight increase of 1 percentage point to 70%. High school seniors who identify as two or more races also saw gains of about 1 percentage point to nearly 75%.

Latino students and those who are learning English as a second language posted the steepest drops of any demographic, as did students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

"The class of 2021 faced incredibly difficult circumstances in their final years of high school," state Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in a statement Wednesday.

As many students struggled with distance learning, some districts adjusted their grading policies in order to help pupils stay afloat.

Among the state's three largest districts, Anoka-Hennepin posted gains while Minneapolis and St. Paul saw slight decreases in the percentage of students graduating on time.

Anoka-Hennepin's four-year completion rate was nearly 89%, nearly 3 percentage points higher than in 2020. In St. Paul, 76% of the district's high schoolers graduated on time, more than 2 percentage points lower than the prior year. And in Minneapolis, the district posted a four-year completion rate of a little less than 74%, about half a percentage point less than in 2020.

At Anoka High, where 91% of students graduated on time, Principal Mike Farley said it was challenging to maintain consistency and assess students' needs throughout the year. Students attended class in-person for two days per week during the fall term, then four days per week in the winter.

"We spent a lot of time working on the relationship pieces," Farley said.

Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law said the district had attendance officers and school counselors touch base with students who missed assignments or otherwise needed help getting back on track.

"It was all hands on deck, and we are going to work outside the norms to create opportunities for our kids during this pandemic," Law said.

In Duluth Public Schools, the on-time graduation rate fell 4 percentage points to 71.5%.

With so much of the year spent learning from home, some students disengaged, said Anthony Bonds, the district's assistant superintendent. Some had to care for siblings while parents worked and some struggled with technology access or working independently, he said.

"Last year was an eye-opening, transformational year," Bonds said, "that put a spotlight on the glaring inequities already existing in our community."

In the South St. Paul Public Schools district, where the four-year completion rate was 71%, educators said students faced many of the same struggles.

Chad Schmidt, the district's director of learning, said access to reliable internet and learning spaces without distractions were major hurdles.

"It's a measure of success for the kids who were able to graduate from high school in the midst of the hottest of the pandemic," he said. "We're proud of their flexibility and proud they made it through it."

Although the district posted a drop of 6 percentage points in its overall graduation rate, it also saw its dropout rate fall. That meant more students were staying enrolled to finish their diploma in their fifth or even sixth year.

Dropouts drive graduation dip

The dip in the four-year completion rate across the rest of the state, officials said, was driven in part by an uptick in the dropout rate, which rose to 4.05% from 3.73% in 2020.

Those rates were highest among students eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Mueller, the state education commissioner, said students with challenges outside the classroom were particularly at risk of dropping out. She cited as factors rising housing costs and the difficulties faced by those experiencing food insecurity.

"Dropout prevention begins the day our students walk in the door of our elementary schools and continue through graduation," Mueller said.

The state's four-year graduation rate had been rising slowly in recent years. It topped out in at 83.8% in 2020 before sliding last spring.

Mueller used the latest statewide figures to push for Gov. Tim Walz's proposed spending plan, which would add 2% to the state's general education formula.

"We will continue to work for our students, and we need support from the Legislature," she said.

Staff writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this story.