More work needed to improve graduation rates

The OlympianMay 6, 2014 

There are two ways to interpret recent research into the graduation rate of America’s public K-12 schools: 4 out of every 5 students now graduate from high school; or, 1 out of every 5 students still drops out of school.

The first – reaching an 80 percent average graduation rate nationwide – merits a celebration. The second suggests there is more work to do, especially in the state of Washington.

According to the report released this week, our state falls below the national average. Our 77 percent graduation rate was better than only 13 other states, putting us closer to the poorest performing schools than the best.

The best states – Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont, Nebraska and Texas – scored 88 or 89 percent. That led the researchers to predict a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, a number already being reached in other countries.

After breaking out the graduation rate of low-income students, Washington state compares even less favorably. Only 66 percent of low-income students in our state earned a high school diploma in 2012, 11th worst of the 47 states measured and 6 percentage points below the national average.

Some states – Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kansas – that have more than half of its students qualifying as low-income still exceeded the national average graduation rate.

The research credited several factors for the positive national trend: focusing on students of color, letting students who fail classes make them up online, and including student graduation rates in accountability measures.

Another study pointed out that U.S. teachers are much less diverse than their students. Closing that diversity gap could have a positive impact on graduation rates.

It’s interesting that in Washington, paraeducators are more diverse than regular classroon teachers.

While our state’s fourth-graders made gains in math last year, nearly 7,000 out of 71,671 seniors failed to pass the state math test in 2013. That number includes 4,100 who didn’t pass the test and another 2,700 who didn’t even attempt the exam.

Washington state’s math problem is not unique in America. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students rank below average in math compared with their peers in other developed countries. Last year’s PISA report said the ranking of U.S. 15-year-olds was trending down.

Washington state should and will do better. The recent emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will soon begin to boost state scores, as will the introduction of Common Core standards and further investments by the Legislature in early childhood education.

But boosting test scores isn’t the same as reducing the dropout rate. To do that, our educators, legislators, and citizens need to focus on how to do a better job of making all our schools places where low-income students and students of color feel respected, valued, and expected to succeed.

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