U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, and John King, who will succeed Duncan, attended an awards ceremony at a D.C. elementary school earlier this month. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

High school graduation rates ticked up in a majority of states in 2014, and graduation gaps between white and minority students narrowed in most states that year, according to new federal data.

Though nationwide data is not yet available, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the preliminary state numbers suggest that the country is on track for a rise in graduation rates for the third year in a row.

Eighty-one percent of the Class of 2013 graduated on time, the highest figure since states began calculating graduation rates in a uniform way in 2010.

“It’s for me very, very encouraging,” Duncan told reporters Monday morning. “By all indications, it looks like the nation will take another step in the right direction.”

[High school graduation rates tick up for the third year in a row]

Graduation rates rose in 36 states, with the biggest increases in Delaware (where 87 percent of students graduated on time in 2014, up 6.6 percentage points from 2013); Alabama (where 86.3 percent graduated on time, up 6.3 percent); and Oregon, which has had one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation. Oregon’s rate rose 3.3 percentage points to 72 percent.

Among the states that saw smaller increases were Maryland, where 86.4 percent of students graduated on time in 2014, and Virginia, where 85.3 percent graduated on time.

Five states saw a decline, as did the District of Columbia, where 61.4 percent of students graduated on time in 2014, a dip of nearly one percentage point compared to 2013.

Minority students have been closing gaps with their white peers in recent years, but those gaps remain substantial: In 2013, 86.6 percent of white students graduated on time, compared with 75.2 percent of Hispanic students and 70.7 percent of black students, according to the annual GradNation report.

In 2014, the gap between white and black students narrowed in 28 states, and the gap between white and Hispanic students narrowed in 32 states. But fewer than half of states saw gaps shrink between low-income children and their more affluent peers; between English language learners and native English speakers; and between children with disabilities and all students.

“To be clear, there are still hundreds of thousands of kids every year who are dropping out. What chance in life do they have?” Duncan said. “Progress is good, but we’ve got to get better faster.”

Duncan, who recently announced that he will step down in December, said that graduation rates are a particularly important metric of progress at a time when most states are administering new Common Core-aligned tests with results that aren’t comparable to previous years.

He and his successor, John King, also said Monday that rising graduation rates are evidence that the Obama administration’s education policies are working, and that Congress should stay the course as it works on rewriting No Child Left Behind, the main federal education law.

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The House and the Senate have each approved their own versions of a rewritten law. Each would significantly scale back the federal role in public education, giving states far more latitude to determine which schools are failing to serve students and what should be done about them.

The two chambers are now negotiating a compromise that will have to pass both houses and win the president’s signature before becoming law. On the right, conservatives want to shrink the federal footprint in education even further; on the left, the civil rights community and the Obama administration have argued that federal government must have the power to keep states from hiding achievement gaps or ignoring struggling schools.

The fate of the negotiations, never certain, became even more tenuous after Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced his resignation as Speaker of the House, a sign of deepening fault lines within the Republican conference.

Here are the state-by-state graduation rates in 2013 and 2014, with states that saw declines in red:

2012-13 and 2013-14 Graduation Rate Data