Utah lags behind 31 states in terms of high school graduation rates, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.
There's no doubt, what this study shows is that Utah needs to work to improve. I think it's a good wake-up call for Utah. —Judy Park

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lags behind 31 states in the percentage of students graduating high school and is among the worst in the nation for graduating minority students, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.

Utah reported a 76 percent overall graduation rate for the 2010-11 academic year. That rate places Utah near the middle of state rankings, which range from a low of 59 percent in the District of Columbia to a high of 88 percent in Iowa.

The state's Latino students show a graduation rate of 57 percent, equal to the rate for American Indian or Alaskan native students. Asian and Pacific Islander students graduated at a rate of 72 percent and the state's black students graduated at a rate of 61 percent.

Utah's Latino graduation rate is the fourth-worst in the nation, ahead of only Minnesota, Nevada and Washington, D.C., according to the department data, which include graduation rates from 47 states, the District of Columbia and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"When you look at the state by state comparison, it's very concerning where Utah is," said Judy Park, associate state superintendent.

Gov. Gary Herbert, speaking after Tuesday's meeting of the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, said the numbers are disappointing and unacceptable. But he said he and other education stakeholders are looking at the factors that contribute to poor student performance, such as poverty levels and language barriers, and are working to give students the support they need.

"We’re going to look into all of those and see what we can do to improve achievement with children at risk and our minority population who seem to be scoring a little lower than what they are capable of," he said.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Education represent the first year in which all states used a uniform rate calculation. In past years, states used varying standards to calculate graduation rates, which often resulted in figures that were difficult to track and compare.

In Utah, the new federal calculation guidelines resulted in a dramatic decline in the state's reported graduation rate, which fell from roughly 90 percent, according to Park. She said the state's former calculation method included as "graduates" students who had completed GED testiing as well as special education and severely disabled students who were given non-diploma certificates of completion.

"I don't necessarily think this new formula is more accurate," Park said. "It's just different."

Officials have gone back as far as 2008 and recalculated Utah's graduation rate under the federal guidelines. Park said that when adjusted, the numbers show graduation rates in Utah have steadily improved each year. Since 2008, the overall graduation rate has increased by 7 percentage points, and each minority group, with the exception of Asian students, has improved, despite the low standing nationally.

Even so, Park said, the U.S. Department of Education data make it clear that Utah should not be content with its performance.

"There's no doubt, what this study shows is that Utah needs to work to improve," she said. "I think it's a good wake-up call for Utah."

Park said the list of legislative priorities given to lawmakers by the Utah State Board of Education is focused on programs that would target minority and at-risk students, such as all-day kindergarten and funding for math and literacy programs and professional development for teachers.

Some 30 education bills have already been filed for the upcoming session, which include legislation like a statewide high quality preschool program for at-risk students — based on a successful model from the Granite School District — and results-based funding for schools.

Funding is a perennial challenge for schools in the state, but Park said recent years have seen the growth and diversification of Utah's student population while funding has dwindled as a result of the recession.

"We've seen, for many years, decreases in funding as our demographics have changed and our minority population has increased," she said. "I think that's creating some very difficult challenges in Utah."

At Tuesday's meeting of the education commission, members voted unanimously to recommend to the Legislature that growth in education be funded first and foremost, followed by compensation for teachers and professors and then funding for programs that would keep the state on pace with the goals set by Prosperity 2020.

The commission also voted to recommend that lawmakers pass a resolution outlining the Prosperity 2020 goals, which include benchmarks for reading proficiency, graduation rates, ACT testing as well as the primary goal of two-thirds of Utah's adult population holding some form of post-secondary certification by the year 2020.

"We are doing everything we can to raise the bar for achievement here in Utah," Herbert said. "And it is working. Our graduation rates are improving and that’s as it should be."

The state's Democratic Party chairman, Jim Dabakis, was less convinced that solutions were being found. In a prepared statement, he described the state's graduation rates as a "5-star emergency" and called on Republicans to put money where their mouths are.

"We simply cannot continue smug claims to be a state that values education, that 'does more with less,' when faced with such a horrendous record, and with no movement from Republicans in state government or the Legislature to right this sinking ship," he said. "Utah has hit a tipping point."

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