Big gains in Latino graduation rates, but Utah still lags nation

May 13, 2015
Author: Benjamin Wood
http://www.sltrib.com/news/2508874-155/big-gains-in-latino-graduation-rates

Utah can claim the biggest jump in graduation rates for Latino high school students, according to a national report released Tuesday.

But that No. 1 is all relative, considering how big the state's minority student graduation gap was to begin with.

In essence, Utah has moved from low-performing to somewhere in the middle of the pack for the state's overall graduation rate — from 32nd in the country to 24th in 2014.

That was enough to put the state in the Top Five for increasing its high school completion numbers.

"We're making progress in all three of the areas [the report] talked about," Ann White, director of federal programs for the Utah State Office of Education, said. "But none of us are satisfied with where we are."

Since 2010, Utah's graduation rate for Latino students has climbed by 17 percentage points, from 55 percent to 72 percent last year, according to state data.

That increase has narrowed the gap between minority and white students, from 24 points in 2010 to 14 points in 2014.

It's progress noted as the nation's best in a new report by Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center, which found that gains among minority and low-income students have set the nation on track for a 90 percent graduation rate in 2020.

But with 14 points still separating Latino and white students, Utah's graduation gap continues to be larger than the national average, which was 11.4 points in 2013.

The state's 83 percent overall graduation rate in 2014 was touted as the fourth-best growth since 2011 in the report.

White said Utah's comparatively poor starting point set the state up for large gains, since there is more mathematical ground to cover.

She said as numbers improve, it becomes difficult to sustain growth because, "the higher you are, the harder it is to make those changes."

Utah's overall graduation rate has climbed by roughly 2 percentage points each year since 2009, and White said she's encouraged by that consistency.

"We want this to be steady but sustainable growth," she said. "We want to make sure that the gains we're making are not going to go away in a year or two."

At the same time, the state failed to graduate 1 out of every 4 Latino seniors last year, with even lower rates among black students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Improving the graduation rates of traditionally at-risk students is crucial to improving the state's overall rate, according to Bill Crim, a senior vice president with the United Way of Salt Lake.

"We can't achieve our graduation rate goals unless we target efforts at the kids who are not on track to graduate," Crim said. "And often, those are low-income kids."

Crim said progress should be commended, and it's worth giving kudos to Utah schools and school districts for the increase in graduation rates.