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Utah's graduation rate jumps 3 percent with gains among minority groups

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17 2013 4:22 p.m. MST

Rochelle Voss reacts to seeing how chlorophyll changes color when exposed to light in Skyline High science teacher Kathy Affleck's science class on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's high school graduation rate swelled to more than 80 percent in 2013, and minority students continued to chip away at the lingering performance gap, according to data released Tuesday by the State Office of Education.

The statewide graduation rate increased to 81 percent this year, up from 78 percent in 2012. The latest gains continue a trend that has seen graduation rates climb by 12 percent since 2008, with a coinciding 13 percent decline in the dropout rate.

"Obviously, this is great news for Utah public schools and even better news for Utah’s economic future,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said in a prepared statement. “We think this is attributable, at least in part, both to better data collection by local school districts and charter schools, and to making better use of data to drive policy and action in response to the graduation rate.”

The year also saw increases in the graduation rate for all subgroups of students, including minority students, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities.

White students have the highest overall graduation rate at 85 percent. But the 3 percent increase for white students since 2012 was one of the lowest gains in the state as traditionally underperforming groups continue to make strong performance gains.

The graduation rate for Hispanic students, Utah's largest minority group, increased 6 percentage points to a 68 percent graduation rate. English language learners jumped by 10 percent to a 57 percent rate, and economically disadvantaged students now graduate at a rate of 72 percent, up 5 percent since 2012.

Menlove said those gains are consistent with Utah's recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed the state making significant gains in reading proficiency among minority and low-income students.

He pointed to the increased number of Utah educators with an English as a second language certification and investment in professional development as contributing to those gains.

"I think it’s encouraging that the efforts we’ve been making in those areas are seeing results," Menlove said.

Education officials have been working toward a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, part of a larger package of statewide goals aimed at increasing educational outputs.

In April, Menlove said the State Office of Education had a goal of increasing the graduation rate by 2 percent each year in order to reach 90 percent by 2020.

The 3 percent increase in 2013 is in line with that goal, Menlove said, but it will take a sustained effort and likely additional resources in order to maintain momentum.

"As we move toward 90 percent, it’s going to be more and more difficult," Menlove said. "Those last 2 or 3 percent in any type of situation like this are the most difficult to achieve."

The new data show that many Utah school districts have met or exceeded the 90 percent benchmark, including the Cache, Carbon, Daggett, Emery, Juab, Kane, Millard, Morgan, Nebo, Rich, Tooele, Wasatch and Wayne school districts. Daggett School District achieved a 100 percent rate for graduating all 14 seniors at Manila High School.

Daggett Superintendent Bruce Northcott said the district's smaller size allows for educators to focus on individual needs of students and track their progress toward education. But Daggett students also are motivated and come to class with an expectation to learn and succeed, he said.

"We just don't let them fall through the cracks, and we have strong tradition that we attend school and we graduate," Northcott said.

In the most recent national graduation data, released in 2012 and based on the 2010-11 school year, Utah lagged behind 31 states and had the fourth-worst graduation rate for Hispanic students.

Utah's Hispanic graduation rate was 57 percent at the time, 11 percentage points below 2013's rate. New national data will not be available until sometime next year, but Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education, said he expects Utah's standing to improve.

"Certainly now that we’re over 80 percent (statewide), I would think we’d move up in the rankings," Peterson said.

A detailed breakdown of the graduation data, including rates at the local school level, can be found on the State Office of Education website.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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