Iowa has nation's best high school graduation rate

More than 89 percent of Class of 2012 received diplomas, state officials report

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Iowa has earned a “B plus” in four-year graduation rates. According to new numbers from the Iowa Department of Education, the state’s 2012 four-year high school graduation rate was 89.26 percent, a 0.94 percent uptick from the class of 2011’s 88.32 percent.

The statistic reflects the amount of students entering ninth grade for the first time in fall 2008 who earned their diplomas by 2012.

“By reporting a four-year rate, schools and districts are making it a priority to see how they can help kids complete within that window,” said Jay Pennington, chief of the bureau of information and analysis services for the education department. “I think there is a hyper-focus on finishing within four years.”

The trend continued in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor, with the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Clear Creek Amana, Linn-Mar and College Community school districts all showing grad-rate gains. The Marion Independent School District showed the area’s largest leap, going from 87.5 percent in 2011 to 92.7 percent in 2012; an increase of 5.2 percent and the highest rate in the area.

“I really think a big part of that comes from the staff in any building just continuing to do anything they can to help students be successful,” said Sarah Pinion, superintendent of the Marion schools.

She cited adjusting staff availability to students before and after school as well as online credit recovery as initiatives that played a role in the district’s graduation-rate growth.

Cedar Rapids’ four-year graduation rate rose from 81.64 percent in 2011 to 82.8 percent in 2012. For Iowa City, the number grew from 88.1 percent for the class of 2011 to 89.03 for the class of 2012.

Iowa’s 2011 four-year graduation rate was the highest in the nation and Pennington is optimistic that things will remain the same when comparing 2012 data.

“Given that (the rate) has gone up, I think it would be really likely that we would maintain that top position or close to,” he said.

Drops for dropouts

Pennington attributed the graduation rate gain to a corresponding descent in the state’s annual dropout rate, which declined to 3.20 percent for the 2011-12 school year, from 3.38 percent in 2010-11.

“The largest portion of dropouts in any given year are going to be your older kids, your seniors,” Pennington said. “Typically, when you see a higher graduation rate you’re going to see a lower dropout rate because those kids are completing.”

Dropout rates increased slightly, to 5.99 percent from 5.93 percent in 2010-11 for students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches.

“Certainly that’s alarming, but if we drop that tenth of a percent it’s going to look almost the same,” Pennington said. “We’re really talking small numbers of students.”

The number also rose for black learners, the ethnic subgroup with the largest prevalence of dropouts, to 8.96 in 2011-12 from 8.56 in 2010-11.

Pennington said there is no data or information on why dropout rates rose for those groups while sinking for others. He also noted that none of Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed education reforms addresses those students.

The measurements

Pennington said the four-year graduation rate measurement the state currently uses takes individual students into account, as opposed to the past formula which did not. In his view, this results in a more “robust” measurement and increased accountability.

“You’re able to see a lot more and see where students are kind of getting lost or fall through the cracks,” Pennington said. “It also finds a common meansure not only within Iowa but across states. There’s a common measure that we’re all using to report who finishes and who doesn’t. Then you can really look at the why and the what in terms of why they didn’t finish and what supports those students need to get across the finish line.”

Even with the good news, Pennington advised that there’s more work to be done, particularly in improving Iowa students’ National Assessment of Educational Progress exam results, which have remained largely stagnant while other states’ learners have excelled.

“I think it’s great news that we’re seeing an increase in graduation rates,” he said. “There’s been a ton of good work done by schools to get students across the finish line and completing high school. At the same time, you need to put these measures in perspective with other measurements.”

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