High school graduation rates are up again in Utah — thanks to minority students

(Tribune file photo) East High School celebrates graduation at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

Utah’s high school graduation rate ticked up again in 2018 — a gain largely driven by students of color.

Statewide, 87 percent of seniors got a diploma, an increase of 1 percentage point from the previous year and 6 points over the past five, according to data released Tuesday by the Utah State Board of Education. That’s more than 47,000 students who graduated this spring.

But within that slight increase — and the cause of it — nearly every minority group saw significant growth in the number of students graduating.

“The achievement gap is heading in the right direction to close,” said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a Utah-based Latino outreach group. “It’s definitely very encouraging to see.”

Black, American Indian and Asian students saw the biggest leaps, with each group increasing its graduation rate by 3 percentage points in the last year. Since 2013, all minorities have grown by 8 points or more.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Five years ago, Latino students were among the least likely to graduate. Now, more than three in four do. Garza would like to see the percentage — 78 — get even higher and hopes districts across the state will do more to “engage and involve parents.”

The graduation rates for all minority groups, except Asian students, still fall behind that of their white peers, at 89 percent.

“It’s not good enough yet, but we’re reaching our goals,” said Harold Foster, who oversees American Indian programs for the State Board of Education.

Foster said the 19 school districts that have American Indian coordinators and mentors, for example, tend to have higher graduation rates and test scores than the 22 that don’t. Minority students, he said, benefit from having that support.

American Indian students in Utah have a 77 percent high school graduation rate, up from 74 percent last year and 65 percent five years ago. In 2013, the group — the worst-performing demographic at the time — was separated by 20 percentage points from white students. Now, it is by 12.

The rate for Pacific Islander students went down slightly this year, from 86 to 85 percent, but is still up from 77 percent in 2013.

“Any time the needle moves the wrong way, it’s concerning,” said Board of Education spokesman Mark Peterson. “It’s something to keep an eye on, but not something that’s trending.”

Overall, the gaps are narrowing, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, “and that is good news for Utah students and for the future of our state.”

Utah has a goal of graduating 90 percent of its high school students by 2020. It will fall just short of that, at 89 percent by the deadline, if its growth rate continues at the same pace of roughly 1 percentage point each year.

Peterson said it’s possible to meet the goal, but it gets harder to maintain the clip of improvement as schools get closer to 100 percent.

“It’s likely to be close,” he said. “But we’re still on track for getting there.”