Surprising new graduation numbers: Idaho below national average

(UPDATED, 2:50 p.m., with comments from Ybarra and State Board of Education.)

Idaho’s graduation rate tied for 41st in the nation in 2013-14, according to new numbers released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

Idaho’s graduation rate came in at 77.3 percent; the national rate was 82.3 percent.

The state’s 77.3 percent figure isn’t new; the State Department of Education released it in March. But the national report places Idaho’s rate in new context. And the report challenges the long-held assumption that Idaho boasts one of the nation’s highest high school graduation rates — even while state leaders have readily acknowledged Idaho’s college attendance and college graduation rates lag near the bottom of national rankings.

In actuality, Idaho’s high school graduation rate may also be lagging — beating out only eight states and the District of Columbia.

Breaking down the numbers

In 2013-14, for the first time, Idaho calculated its graduation rate using a federal formula that tracks students from ninth grade and through the high school years. This allowed a more nuanced — and more troubling — comparison between Idaho and the nation.

According to the feds’ formula, 77.3 percent of the students who entered ninth grade in Idaho in 2010-11 received a high school diploma by 2013-14. The remaining students fall into several categories: They earned a GED or a special education diploma, they could be “known or possible” high school dropouts, or they might have left the state.

Across the demographic spectrum, Idaho struggled. Graduation rates for white, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaskan native students all fell below the national averages. The same held true for students with disabilities and students from low-income households. One bright spot for Idaho: 74.7 percent of students with limited English proficiency received a diploma, compared to a national average of 62.6 percent.

Idaho reactions

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State superintendent Sherri Ybarra

Idaho Education News requested comments from state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and Gov. Butch Otter.

Here is Ybarra’s prepared statement, in full: “Given that this is the first publication of the newly established graduation cohort based on the new federal calculation; this will set a new baseline graduation rate for the state. We look forward to continuing to supporting schools, which support students in reaching the goal of graduation — this is a student’s first step in moving onto college or career and reaching their life goals.”

Through a spokesman, Otter deferred to his State Board of Education. The board issued the following statement:

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Gov. Butch Otter

“A 77 percent graduation rate for the high school class of 2014 illustrates why the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education are critical for our state. Investing in our teachers through professional development, mentoring and salary apportionment; improved academic standards; more and higher quality technology in the classroom; and implementing mastery-based education are among the Task Force recommendations that the Board believes will improve teaching and learning in Idaho schools and result in higher graduation rates.”

Otter’s task force, convened in 2013, issued 20 far-reaching recommendations on K-12 policy. The governor — along with the state’s education, political and business leaders — has embraced the task force report as Idaho’s best chance of boosting its languid college attendance and graduation rate.

State leaders want 60 percent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a college degree or postsecondary certificate by 2020. But the current high school graduation rate could thwart Idaho’s efforts to hit its postsecondary education goals.

The latest numbers demonstrate the need to invest in education across the board, from early childhood programs through high school, Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr said Tuesday.

“More must be done,” she said. “Idaho’s children deserve these programs and the opportunities they can produce.”

A national success story

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Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan

The U.S. Department of Education touted Tuesday’s national figures, representing a record graduation rate. The 2012-13 national graduation rate was 81 percent.

“The hard work of teachers, administrators, students and their families has made these gains possible and as a result many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family,” outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.