Minority students drive improvement in Utah’s high school graduation rate

Latest numbers from Utah Board of Education show achievement gaps persists between white and minority students, but the margin is narrowing.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Water Canyon High School graduate Danielle Barlow breaks down in tears in the arm of a friend, Paula Barlow, after a graduation ceremony in Hildale, Monday May 22, 2017. Barlow is the 13th of 16 children, and the first to earn a high school diploma.

Utah’s high school graduation rate continued its upward climb in 2017, fueled in significant part by improvement among minority students.

Statewide, 86 percent of high school seniors earned their diplomas this year, an increase of 5 percentage points in as many years, according to Utah Board of Education data released Monday.

Graduation rates for all demographic groups tracked by the state school board either remained the same or improved compared to 2016. And gains among all racial minorities outpaced their white peers, with the exception of Asian students, who saw no year-to-year change in these numbers but whose graduation rate has been the highest in Utah since 2015.

“It is exciting to be a part of an education system that is improving over time,” state School Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said in a statement. “I am grateful to the parents and teachers who are working with their children and students to prepare them for their first steps into their adult lives.”

In addition to an overall jump in the state’s graduation rate, the new data show that the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students is shrinking.

In 2013, a 20-percentage-point gap separated the graduation rate of white students and American Indian students, the worst-performing demographic group at the time. This year, the state’s black graduation rate is the lowest among minority groups, some 15 percentage points below the rate for white students, or 16 points lower than the Asian graduation rate.

“There is still a significant gap, but it is a narrowing gap,” said Mark Peterson, state school board spokesman. “That’s where we’ve gotten most of our growth — among minority populations.”

The new figures also show volatility among Utah’s smaller and rural school districts, where a handful of students can sway percentages. The graduation rates of the Box Elder, Millard and Tooele school districts each fell by 3 percentage points, with several smaller percentage drops in other districts around the state.

South Summit School District experienced the largest year-over-year decline, falling 12 percentage points to a graduation rate of 79 percent.

“When you have a smaller graduating class and it differs by three or four students, that throws the percentage off,” said Shad Sorenson, superintendent of South Summit School District.

Sorenson said he was surprised by his district’s low numbers, adding that an internal review put the graduation rate above 90 percent. But part of the discrepancy could be due to the way graduation rates are calculated, he said.

Federal guidelines require schools to track graduating seniors based on the students who enrolled as freshman years earlier. Those rules allow for students transferring to a new school, but Sorenson said an unexpected family move — particularly out of state or to a different country — can lead to a bump in the number of dropout seniors.

He said it’s possible that some South Summit High School students got lost in the system after a mobile-home park in the district was closed three years ago to make way for a condominium complex.

“If they didn’t re-enroll in a Utah school, then, from the state’s perspective, they would be considered dropouts,” he said. “That is the only thing we can figure if indeed the state is calculating it that low.”

Those losses were offset by gains in Utah’s urban areas. The state’s five largest school districts all saw their graduation rates improve or stay the same, while rates in Ogden City School District, Provo City School District and Salt Lake City School District jumped by 7 percentage points, 6 percentage points and 3 percentage points, respectively.

"Next year it may be a totally different picture if you’ve got a smaller district,” Peterson said. “The big picture would be all students and the larger demographic groups, and the arrows there are going in the right direction.”

School district 2017 graduation rates<br>Alpine School District: 92 percent (+1 point)<br>Davis School District: 94 percent (no change)<br>Granite School District: 75 percent (+2 points)<br>Jordan School District: 87 percent (no change)<br>Canyons School District: 86 percent (+1 point)<br> Salt Lake City School District: 79 percent (+3 points)<br>Ogden City School District: 75 percent (+7 points)<br>Provo City School District: 77 percent (+6 points)<br>Murray School District: 77 percent (-2 points)

Salt Lake City is a majority-minority school district — meaning white students make up less than half the overall student body — while Ogden City School District is the state’s only majority-Latino district.

In Provo, executive director of secondary education Todd McKee said administrators set a goal of lifting the district’s graduation last year and committed to monthly meetings to discuss and implement strategies.

That led to the creation of a “twilight school” program between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. during the week, McKee said, and greater investment in the district’s summer school programs to provide struggling students with additional support.

Provo School District also held an additional graduation ceremony in October for students who were able to finish their work during the summer months. Students who complete graduation requirements before Sept. 30 are included in that year’s graduation numbers, McKee said.

“We had committed to them if they worked hard through the summer, that we were going to have a fall ceremony for them,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for them to celebrate.”

McKee said the district is also using data to create an “early warning system” when a student begins to fall behind. He said the transition from middle school to high school is a common choke point for academic progress, but in the past it might take years before it was apparent that a student had fallen behind.

“Kids would come through the system and it really wasn’t until that senior year they were really on anyone’s radar,” McKee said.

Utah has a goal of graduating 90 percent of high school students by 2020. The current pace of 1 percentage point each year would put the state’s graduation rate at 89 percent by that deadline.

Peterson said it’s still possible that Utah will reach its 2020 goal, but added that the more schools improve, the harder it becomes to maintain the pace of improvement.

“The trend line is certainly in our favor,” he said. “But the closer you get to 100 [percent], the harder the lift is.”