WASHINGTON — Arizona high schools have increased their graduation rate by 24 percentage points in the last decade, the biggest increase in the country, according to a national report released Friday.
While the state has improved, it still ranks only in the middle of the pack nationally, according to the report from Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. It said Arizona graduated 72 percent of its high school students in 2009, putting the state “a hair below” the national average for the year.
The most striking fact about Arizona’s “whopping improvement” is that graduation rates have improved more than three times faster than the national average of 7.3 percentage points, said Sterling Lloyd, a senior research associate for the center.
State officials said one of the chief reasons for Arizona’s increase has been the rise in the number of Latino students graduating from high school. Arizona Department of Education spokesman Ryan Ducharme said the state has one of the largest concentrations of Latino students in the nation, at nearly 45 percent, and has seen their graduation rate increase from 60 percent in 2005 to nearly 70 percent in 2011.
“That’s our fastest growing population of students in Arizona and we made a concerted effort to create programs and help schools improve those graduation rates,” Ducharme said. “We attribute a lot of success to those schools who serve those populations, they do a lot of great work.”
Because of Arizona’s sizable Latino population, any improvements in that group considerably affect the overall graduation numbers for the entire state, Lloyd said.
“There has been a great focus on the achievement gap over the last decade with efforts to improve, not just graduation rates, but overall academic results for students of color,” said Lloyd, a co-author of the report.
Despite steady graduation gains, Arizona continues to struggle with students dropping out of school. An average of 119 students are lost each school day in Arizona, the 14th-highest total in the country.
Lloyd said there has been greater awareness about the dropout crises over the past decade and a number of community leaders, educators and policy makers are starting to take this issue more seriously.
In an attempt remedy the situation, the Arizona Education Department created a division dedicated to studying the issue of high school dropouts and working to prevent them and to increase graduation rates. The division, in conjunction with much-improved student tracking data, has helped the state provide more accurate graduation numbers.
“Many students would be classified in our systems as unknown in terms of their status, they may have transferred to a private school or even moved out of state,” Ducharme said.
“Those numbers weren’t being properly tracked and we have better data to track true graduation rates now.”
Even though Arizona made the most significant strides in improving its graduation rate, the state still ranks 29th nationally. But the overall rankings depend not only on how Arizona is doing, but how all other states are doing.
Sizable increases or decreases from another state could potentially have impacts on Arizona’s rankings, said Amy Hightower, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
Ducharme said he expects the improvement to continue as Arizona continues to focus on keeping kids in school.
“The ultimate goal at the department is to better prepare students for college and career success,” he said. “If you’re not graduating from high school, then you are limiting your opportunities for later in life.”