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Sun., May 11, 2014, midnight

Editorial: Graduation rate increase deserves our appreciation

The graduation rate at public high schools has reached 80 percent, an impressive achievement amid continual complaints about the U.S. educational system.

The figures, based on recently released U.S. Department of Education data for the 2011-12 school year, show the adjusted four-year average for Washington was 77 percent. Spokane Public Schools was at 76.6 percent; Mead, 88.2 percent; Central Valley, 85.8; West Valley, 94.5 percent, and East Valley, 88.4 percent.

For 2012-13, the SPS rate rose to 79.5 percent, which is noteworthy because it wasn’t that long ago the community was bemoaning a flood of dropouts that lowered the graduation rate to 62 percent in 2007-08. As it turned out, a different method of counting was partly responsible for that dismal figure, but there’s no doubt that significant progress has been made since the alarm was sounded.

It should be noted that 57 percent of SPS students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and such students have historically been more likely to drop out. Yet, the graduation rate at Rogers High School in the poorest area of the city is 86 percent. Staff and students have done tremendous work and should be proud.

Nationally, researchers say progress can be pegged to focusing resources on “dropout factories” (schools with low graduation rates), the addition of accountability measures, and an overall commitment to becoming more globally competitive after decades of slipping behind other countries on a variety of education measures.

Comparing graduation rates was once a frustrating exercise because it wasn’t until 2008 that the George W. Bush administration ordered all states to use the same method for counting. The now-standardized adjusted four-year rate divides the number of on-time graduates by ninth-grade enrollment figures. Adjustments are made for student transfers.

Based on the standard formula, the U.S. graduation rate was 75 percent in 2008-09. Researchers believe it was as low as 72 percent in 2000-01. If the rate had remained that low, 1.7 million more American students would’ve been without diplomas in 2012.

The impressive gains have education analysts believing a 90 percent graduation rate is attainable by 2020. That’s an admirable goal, but it should be tempered with a couple of considerations.

First, the easiest gains have been achieved. School districts, particularly those in larger cities, still have significant challenges in helping low-income and minority students gain diplomas. Special-needs students, who are included in the data, also need more help. The data show that some states do much better than others with these challenges, so improvement is possible by adopting best practices.

Second, many states, such as Washington, have raised graduation requirements as they roll out Common Core standards. SPS has warned of a possible increase in dropouts because of this. If that occurs, the community shouldn’t panic. Higher standards dovetail with the need for students to attain more than a high school diploma if they want fruitful careers.

Improving education will be a continual challenge, but it’s encouraging to hear that more young people have raised their sights by staying in school.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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