Following a national trend, high school graduation rates in Washington state are climbing.
But the state still lags behind the most recently reported national average.
Mirroring another national trend, Washington’s students of color, low-income kids and other groups still graduate at lower than average rates.
Still, many of those numbers are inching upward, officials say.
On Thursday, the state superintendent’s office released last year’s high school graduation rates.
For 2015, the four-year graduation rate statewide was 78.1 percent, up from 76.6 percent in 2011. The rate for students who took a fifth year to finish high school was 81 percent, up from 78.2 percent in 2011.
The federal government in 2010 began requiring states and school districts to report graduation statistics uniformly.
But federal statistical data typically are a year behind state-level data. The most recent national four-year graduation rate, for the class of 2014, was 82.3 percent — a record high.
78.1 Percentage of Washington students who graduated on time in 2015
What’s behind the steady climb?
“We’ve gotten more savvy,” said Dixie Grunenfelder, director of secondary education for the state superintendent’s office. “Our data is getting better. It allows schools to identify students earlier when they get off track, and get them back on track.”
And once they’re identified, schools are getting better at helping students who are in danger of falling through the cracks, she added.
Some critics argue that the boost in graduation rates comes from watered-down curricula and lowered standards.
Educators say the opposite is true.
“If you compare it to when I started teaching in 1985, as a system, it is much more rigorous,” said Tim Stensager, now director of performance management for the state superintendent’s office.
The state office looked at school districts in the state with poverty rates of more than 60 percent and spotlighted four that are doing outstanding work for low-income kids: Franklin Pierce, Kelso, Sunnyside and Spokane.
In those districts, students in poverty graduate at relatively high rates, when compared to overall district graduation rates.
We’ve gotten more savvy
Dixie Grunenfelder, state superintendent’s office
In the Parkland-based Franklin Pierce district, 78.5 percent of low-income students graduated in four years last year, compared to an overall district rate of 82.7 percent.
Nearly 73 percent of the district’s more than 7,600 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a marker for poverty. Students speak more than 50 languages at home and more than 60 percent are students of color.
“And with the high mobility rate in Franklin Pierce, it’s really amazing,” said Grunenfelder. Mobility rate refers to the number of students in a district who move during the school year — a process that can disrupt education and one that occurs more frequently among low-income families.
Franklin Pierce Superintendent Frank Hewins said that when he first joined the district in the 2007-08 school year, “we were struggling towards the bottom of the on-time graduation list.”
A national study ranked the district as “a dropout factory.” Educators since have questioned that study, but it was a wakeup call for Franklin Pierce, according to Hewins. Educators there began a steady climb out of the basement.
The district embarked on a series of efforts to turn things around for students at its two comprehensive high schools, Franklin Pierce and Washington, as well as at its alternative learning sites.
“Our vision is to have every one of our kids graduate successfully and succeed in post-secondary education,” Hewins said. “The philosophical underpinning of our organization is that all kids can learn at high levels.”
State officials say the four successful districts on their spotlight list have elements in common.
Among them: adults who believe every student can succeed, clearly defined and measurable goals, data-based early warning systems to flag at-risk students and an emphasis on supporting students, including connections to mental health and substance abuse supports.
Most of our kids are first-generation college students
Frank Hewins, Franklin Pierce Superintendent
In Franklin Pierce, an advisory committee of staff members and parents came up with a parent empowerment guide that’s posted on the district web site. It tells parents who they should talk to when problems arise, everything from bullying to after-school activities.
High school counselors in the district track which students are deficient in credits, who is missing too much school and who is having behavior issues.
“A high school principal can tell you individual kids who are at risk of not making it across the stage in June,” Hewins said.
But he and other educators say high school graduation is no longer the end goal.
In the coming months, state officials plan to release more data that will shed light on what happens to Washington kids after they graduate. The data will look at how many go on to post-secondary education and how many need remedial classes in college.
“What we have found is that once they cross the stage, there’s something called the summer melt, ” Hewins said. “Most of our kids are first-generation college students. Barriers arise, and families don’t always have the knowledge to navigate a complex world.”
While several organizations like the College Success Foundation and Act Six provide support to first-generation students after they start college, Hewins said there are more graduates in need of help.
“That is the next big hurdle,” he said.
Four-year graduation rates
This chart indicates the percentage of high school students who graduated on time. For more graduation data, go to bit.ly/1pbNKNu
Source: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction