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High school graduation rates jumping, but some groups still lag behind, data shows
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American high school students are graduating at record levels, new numbers from the Department of Education reveal, and progress has been made closing the achievement gap among black and Latino youths. Last year, 81 percent of American high school students graduated, a record high.

"America's students have achieved another record-setting milestone," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "We can take pride as a nation in knowing that we're seeing promising gains, including for students of color. This is a vital step toward readiness for success in college and careers for every student in this country, and these improvements are thanks to the hard work of teachers, principals, students and families."

As encouraging as the numbers are, serious concerns persist, especially among black and Latino youths, and particularly among boys. And state by state, the numbers are uneven, with some states making enormous gains over three years and a few actually slipping.

Latino gains

Nevada saw the largest jump, up from a 62 to a 71 percent graduation rate. Alabama also jumped 8 points to 80 percent, while Utah climbed 7 points to 83. Arizona and Wyoming saw the largest slides, falling 3 points to 75 and 77 percent graduation rates, respectively.

The new numbers from the Department of Education were culled from administrative reports from school districts and states, but they parallel the progress in Census Bureau numbers that came out in November, said Richard Fry, an education researcher at the Pew Research Center.

The Census Bureau data showed that dropout rates for African-American and Latino youths were at all time lows. The Census Bureau data includes GEDs along with high school diplomas, Fry noted, but the two data sources together reinforce that something good is happening.

The progress has been more rapid among Hispanic students over the past decade. Black graduation rates climbed 5 percentage points during that period, while the Hispanic numbers jumped 14 points.

Census Bureau numbers now show that 79 percent of Hispanics over both genders between 18 and 24 years old have high school diplomas or GEDs. Blacks in that age bracket do better in the Census numbers, at 82 percent, but both still trail whites at 89 percent and Asians at just shy of 91 percent.

"This is a good development," Fry said. "Finishing high school is critically important in today's job market, and these numbers suggest we are making progress on long-standing gap making that have dragged down African-American and Latino students."

Why the shift now? It's too early to say for sure, according to Fry, but he suspects a combination of factors. The Great Recession, for one, made jobs harder to find without a diploma. Fry also thinks these harsh economic realities reinforced ongoing messaging campaigns aimed at minority youths.

Finally, Fry looks to the transparency requirements from No Child Left Behind, the federal education law signed by President Bush in 2002. "People associate NCLB with annual testing," Fry said, "but a key part of it is holding school districts accountable for graduation rates disaggregated by race and ethnicity." NCLB, Fry thinks, could have helped spur closer attention to minority graduation rates.

A persistent lag

But while some progress has been made closing the gap, it's not enough for John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every other year, Schott releases a study on the educational progress of black male youths.

According to a new 50-state report by Schott, the best odds of graduation go to Asian-American females and the worst odds to black males, with Latino males coming in second to last nationally, but in 13 states Latino males occupied the bottom rung.

The Schott Foundation, which aims to reduce disparities in educational opportunities, has released a report on black male graduation rates every other year since 2004. For the 2012-13 school year, the report found a 59 percent graduation rate for black males, compared to 65 percent for Latino males and 80 percent for white males.

Only two states with sizable black populations, Tennessee and New Jersey, broke the 70 percent threshold. The largest gaps between black and white male graduation were in Big 10 country: Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio gapped at 36, 35 and 30 percent respectively.

The lowest black male graduation rate was in Nevada, at 40 percent, but 62 percent of white males in Nevada graduated. So the racial gap was moderate, although the raw numbers were stark.

The report does not attempt to unpack why some states do better than others, said, Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, who wrote an afterword for the Schott study. "But the purpose of this report is simply to sound the alarm," he said.

But Noguera is very aware of the insights such comparisons can offer. He says he helped run one New York City study that showed, even with rising graduation rates, the rates for black and Latino males were still way behind. But then they realized that 20 schools in New York had over 80 percent graduation rates for black and Latino males. That study led the Bloomberg administration to target those schools for replication.

"We need to do more of that," Noguera said.

More than anything, Jackson said, the country needs to stay focused on the graduation gap, while mustering the political will to collect the data and develop effective programs to close the gap.

Jackson sees the education system as the leading anti-poverty tool in American society. School is the only institution that is built to find kids where they are and get them where they need to be, he said, when their families are not getting the job done.

"We have to align our services and our resources so that they are plugged into the school house," Jackson said. "If we believe that education is a right, then we need to design an education system that works for kids who don't have parents, who are in the foster system, or otherwise struggling."