Az graduation rates rise, still trail national average
Arizona high school graduation rates rose sharply over a 10-year period, but state students still lag behind the national average, according to a new report.
The Tuesday report from Education Week said Arizona graduated 67 percent of its students in 2008, a 7.6 percentage point increase from 1998. While that was the 11th-biggest increase in the country during that period, Arizona still ranked 38th among states.
Over the same decade, the national graduation rate rose from 65.6 percent to 71.8 percent, the highest level since the 1980s.
"Arizona is a few points below the national average," said Chris Swanson, vice president of research and development at Editorial Projects in Education, which prepared the report. "But when you see that 10-year trend, Arizona has increased 8 percent, which is better than the national average."
Education officials in Arizona conceded that there is still room for improvement, but they chose to focus on the gains students have made and the reduction in dropouts.
"We write to our students multiple times during the year to find out what happened to them. We try to get them back," said Joe O'Reilly, Mesa Unified School District's executive director for student achievement support.
Mesa was included in a list of the 50 largest school districts in the country, 39 of which had graduation rates below the national average. But Mesa—the only Arizona district on the list—did relatively well among the large districts, graduating 66.3 percent in 2008 — 5 percentage points higher than projected by the study's authors.
O'Reilly credited a district focus on dropouts for the better-than-expected results in the sprawling East Valley district, which serves two Native American communities and has 65 percent of its students receiving reduced-price lunches.
"We focus on those rates and why the kids drop out," he said. "It means 200 more students graduated than predicted. That made a difference to those 200 students."
He said another challenge for Arizona schools is that "Arizona is a very mobile state. It plays havoc" with graduation numbers.
While most findings followed the national averages, the number of Arizona black students who graduated from high school in 2008 was a surprising 12 percentage points higher than the national average.
Swanson said the study — "Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree" — is an independent analysis of graduation rates around the country, and uses a formula to see the high school experience as a process, rather than a single event.
The formula derives a grade-promotion ratio during each year by dividing the number of students in one grade by the number that were in the preceding grade the year before, and multiplies the four-grade promotions.
"It's a comprehensive national database," Swanson said. "This allows us to do an apples-to-apples comparison around the nation."
The study also calculated the number of high school dropouts for the class of 2011, by multiplying the 2007-08 graduation rate by the number of ninth graders enrolled that year. It calculated nearly 1.2 million of those ninth-graders nationwide would not earn diplomas this year.
The report estimated that 25,632 Arizona students would drop out between ninth grade and this year. Again, those numbers were projected to be better than in previous years.
"It's a point of pride... to be graduating more students," said Mesa Unified community liaison Deanna Villanuevas. "But we're not where we want to be. Our goal is to meet the needs of our students to help all of them succeed."
While others might see a diverse student body as a disadvantage, Villanuevas thinks otherwise.
"It's an advantage to have a diverse group of students here," she said. "We've got so many strengths and assets here."
O'Reilly said the graduation-rate increases show how much effort has been put into education in Arizona. He is interested in what the next few years show, especially since this newest report does not take into account the effects of the recession or SB1070.
"People are taking graduation much more seriously. We're tracking where our students are going," O'Reilly said. "But we need to get them past our finish line, and to a postsecondary finish line."