It was terrific news this week that American high school students have been graduating at a record rate of 80 percent as of 2012.
The flip side of that number, however, is 20 percent, which a good math student could tell you means that 1 in 5 students is not getting a high school diploma — at least not when they’re supposed to get one.
But the trend is in the right direction and can be traced to a number of factors: including graduation rates in accountability measures, taking aggressive action to work with students, letting students who fail classes begin making them up online or after school, and focusing on Hispanic and black student achievement.
Improvements in graduation rates among those students of color accounted for much of the overall rise. Nationwide, rates increased 15 percentage for Hispanics and 9 points for black students between 2006 and 2012, to 76 and 68 percent respectively.
Another important factor was closure of so-called “dropout factories” — schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. There are now 32 percent fewer such schools than a decade ago. Some of those schools improved, others were closed or converted to smaller schools.
The 80 percent national graduation rate reflects work still to be done in Washington state, which lags just behind at 77 percent. South Sound school districts have been improving, but in some cases their 2012 rates fall behind both the state and national averages. Tacoma School District and Clover Park were both just under 68 percent.
Better rates are possible. The states of Texas, Iowa, Vermont, Wisconsin and Nebraska graduate 88 or 89 percent of their students. They’re already above the 85 percent goal Tacoma is aiming to be at by 2020.
Tacoma is taking positive steps in that direction with the Graduate Tacoma! educational initiative coordinated by the Foundation for Tacoma Students. It’s a partnership among the Tacoma School District, United Way, First Five, the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Tacoma Housing Authority, the Children’s Museum, and many more organizations and foundations.
This initiative goes beyond getting kids ready to graduate. It aims to create a college-bound mentality — making graduation just a step along a path. For kids focusing on college, getting a high school diploma becomes a given.
Of course, graduating is no guarantee that a student is well educated; too many college freshman need remedial courses, in English and math particularly. School districts have more than a responsibility to get diplomas into students’ hands; they must ensure those diplomas mean something.