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The State With the Lowest Graduation Rate

High schools across the United States are graduating students at an all-time-high rate of 82.3 percent.

By Robert Nott

High schools across the United States are graduating students at an all-time-high rate of 82.3 percent.

But New Mexico, despite all of its recent education reforms, remains at the bottom among states -- with a graduation rate of 68.5 percent -- and saw no improvement in 2013-14 over the previous year, according to U.S. Department of Education data released Tuesday.

Officials from New Mexico's Public Education Department say the new data do not reflect the state's updated graduation statistics, which would put the rate at 69.3 percent. Even so, that's the second-lowest in the nation, just above the District of Columbia at 61.4 percent. It's also lower than the graduation rate of 70.3 percent that the state boasted in 2012-13.

Santa Fe Public Schools' graduation rate, released earlier this year, is even lower than the state's rate, at about 64.5 percent.

"While we still have a lot of work to do," Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre said, "New Mexico has made significant progress over the last several years and continues to have one of the fastest-growing graduation rates in the country. Since 2011, our graduation rate has grown at three times the national average. But we still have to get more of our students across the finish line."

McEntyre was referring to a 7-point increase in the graduation rate between 2011 and 2013. Earlier this year, both Gov. Susana Martinez and Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera applauded the growth during that time as the third best in the United States, to over 70 percent from 63 percent, helped in part by an increase in the number of Hispanic students who graduated.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lauded the rise in graduation rates for minorities and English-language learners across the nation. "Students of color are improving faster than white students, which means we are closing the [achievement] gap," he said.

For example, between school year 2010-11 and school year 2013-14, the graduation rate for U.S. Hispanic students rose to 76.3 percent from 71 percent. Black students also made gains, with a bump to 72.5 percent from 67 percent during that time. New Mexico's Hispanic students also made gains. Just under 67 percent graduated in 2014, an increase of about 8.6 percent from the previous year.

Duncan said the nation's record graduation rate means "we have taken another step, gotten a little bit closer to fulfilling education's promise to be the great equalizer."

But he cautioned that it's too early to examine the data to see what they say about the success or failure of any state's public education system.

Iowa's high-school graduation rate is the highest in the country at 90.5 percent, followed by Nebraska at 89.7 percent. Wisconsin and New Jersey tied for third place at 88.6 percent, followed by Texas at 88.3 percent. New Hampshire, with 88.1 percent of high-schoolers graduating, ranks fifth.

Nevada, at 70 percent, ranked just above New Mexico.

McEntyre said the U.S. Education Department report was basing its graduation rate for New Mexico on a preliminary analysis in October. Since then, he said, the state's 89 school districts have resubmitted numbers that improve the state's graduation rate by o.8 percent. He acknowledged that's still too low.

"That's why we're investing in truancy and dropout prevention coaches and early warning systems to keep more kids in school," McEntyre said. "And we are putting more money into education than ever before, with more dollars going directly into the classroom to help struggling students learn. We must also end the reckless practice of social promotion, which passes our children onto the next grade even when they cannot read."

Gov. Martinez for several years has pushed an effort to hold back third-graders with subpar scores on the state's standardized reading tests -- one of her most contentious education reform initiatives, and one she plans to push again in the January 2016 legislative session.

In his conference call Tuesday, Duncan emphasized that high school graduation rates do not directly correlate with dropout rates, which represent the percentage of 16- through 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential, be it a diploma or a GED certificate. The national dropout rate is about 7 percent, based on 2013 data, while New Mexico's dropout rate is just under 5 percent.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that recently was replaced by a new education law, guidelines created in 2008 base states' graduation rates on four-year cohorts, tracking students from ninth grade to graduation and taking into account transfers within public schools in the same state, dropout rates and deaths, among other factors.

That rate includes students who may have graduated in less than four years. But in New Mexico's case, it does not include students who take five years or more to graduate. Those students are considered "nongraduates" in the rankings.

Nor does the four-year cohort include public school students who transfer to private schools or to a school in another state.

Though Duncan said higher graduation rates indicate that more students are being prepared for "college, careers and life," he said many states -- including New Mexico -- "have a hugely disturbing amount of high school students who have to take remedial classes in college because the rigor wasn't there in high school."

Various national studies show that anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of high school graduates need to take at least one remedial course in their first year of college.

Graduation rates play a role in New Mexico's A-F school grading system, which Skandera said she expects to release later this month. Those grades, normally released in the summer, are coming late this year because the state was delayed in calculating scores for its new PARCC tests, which were administered for the first time last spring.

(c)2015 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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