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Utah high school graduation rates rise again, to 85 percent in 2016

FILE - Graduates from Skyline and Cyprus High Schools take part in ceremonies Thursday, May 31, 2012 at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah Campus.
FILE - Graduates from Skyline and Cyprus High Schools take part in ceremonies Thursday, May 31, 2012 at the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah Campus.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's high school graduation rate continues to rise, with 85 percent of students having made the grades this year.

While it's a small 1 percent increase over 2015 rates, graduation rates have increased 6.4 percent over the past five years, helping to get closer to the statewide goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

"The needle is moving in the right direction," said Mark Peterson, Utah State Board of Education public relations director. "We'd like it to move faster, but it's moving."

Increases this year were driven by minority students, as graduation rates among white students stayed level. Peterson said there's more ground to make up among various demographics.

Rates among black students have increased from 61 percent in 2012 to 73 percent in 2016, while American Indian students have gone from a 61 percent graduation rate in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016. Hispanic and Latino students have increased from 63 percent in 2012 to 74 percent in 2016, and Pacific Islanders have gone from graduating 73 percent four years ago to an 84 percent graduation rate this year.

It is both a reflection of growing minority populations throughout the state, as well as increased efforts to help everyone get the credits they need to graduate, Peterson said.

High school students in Utah need 24 credits to graduate, and they begin to accumulate in ninth grade. The credits require coursework in English, math, science, social studies, fine arts and computer technology, physical education and health, as well as a number of electives.

Passing grades are necessary in the required general core credits, and when students start to miss out on those beginning in early high school years, Peterson said it "becomes impossible to make them up."

"If you start losing some of those math, science and English credits in ninth and 10th grade, by the time you get to your junior and senior years, it starts looking insurmountable, and that's when we have the dropout problem," he said, adding that the board intends to focus on helping students succeed beginning in ninth and 10th grades.

In 2016, 13 percent of all students dropped out before graduation, with the highest rates of dropouts among American Indian and English language learning students, which has been the case historically, according to school board data.

Peterson said some students come back and complete the work required for a diploma, but some do not.

"A high school diploma is a crucial step for any Utah student who wants to succeed in the global marketplace," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. "We celebrate those students who have taken that first step to make themselves ready for college and careers."

Throughout the state, English language learners and students with learning disabilities continue to struggle, with lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates than other subgroups of students.

Peterson said the state board has implemented a program called Assessment to Achievement, which examines student progress on various annual tests and then identifies students who may need extra academic attention. While it is not available in all districts just yet, those using the program are seeing success among students struggling to keep their grades up.

And although socioeconomic status among families in various school districts is an important indicator of success, some districts seem to be transcending predictors, with Carbon and Juab districts graduating 97 percent of their students.

"Ninety-seven percent is outstanding," Peterson said. Statewide, 85 percent of high school students graduate and among low-income students, graduation rate is 75 percent.

"It is a key to the future for those students," said Peterson. "Those 85 percent who are getting that high school diploma are going to have a better economic future for themselves than the students who aren't."