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Nation’s high school graduation rate reaches new record high

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also attended the event. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The nation’s high school graduation rose again in the 2014-2015 school year, reaching a new record high as more than 83 percent of students earned a diploma on time, according to federal data released Monday.

The figures show gains among every group of students — including white, black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American, as well as low-income students, students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language. The broad improvement continues a trend that began with the 2010-2011 school year, when states first adopted a uniform method of reporting graduation rates.

Gaps between student groups continued to close but remained large: Nearly 88 percent of white students graduated on time, 10 percentage points higher than Hispanic students (78 percent), 13 percentage points higher than black students (75 percent), and 16 percentage points above Native American and Native Alaskan students (72 percent).

Students with disabilities and English language learners have made larger-than-average gains since 2011, but the groups of students continue to graduate at rates far below average.

The White House released the data ahead of a Monday morning event at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District, where President Obama gave a speech highlighting his administration’s efforts to improve public education and heaping praise upon the District for its recent academic progress.

Banneker, a selective-admissions school, has enough low-income students that all are offered free lunch, yet it boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. “You can’t do better than that,” Obama said, praising the hard work of teachers and students and calling Banneker “an example of a school doing things the right way.”

“We have made a lot of progress in terms of making sure that young people across the country get the kind of great education that you’re getting here at Banneker,” Obama said, drawing cheers.

Obama also warned that despite the progress, there is much more work to be done. Too many states have cut funds for education and have not been serious about raising standards and improving performance, he said.

“In too many school districts, we still have too many schools that despite the heroic efforts of a lot of great teachers, are not fully preparing our kids for success because they don’t have the resources to do it, or the structure to do it,” Obama said.

The District — which is entirely comprised of an urban area — has long had a lower graduation rate than any state. But in 2015 it boasted a bigger one-year improvement than any state, jumping from 61.4 percent to 68.5 percent of students graduating on time and leapfrogging over New Mexico.

The city, which has also shown rapid growth on national reading and math exams over the last four years, has adopted many of the reforms that the Obama administration has favored, including universal preschool, early and enthusiastic adoption of the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores and a thriving set of charter schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s public school students.

“The progress that students have made in D.C. is extraordinary,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. “We think that one of the keys to the District’s success has been that they have adopted the same key reforms that this president has advocated for.”

Graduation rates climb to an all-time high at D.C. Public Schools

Iowa posted the highest graduation rate in the nation, with 90.8 percent of students earning a diploma on time, and New Mexico posted the lowest rate among the 50 states, with 68.6 percent of students graduating on time. Locally, both Maryland (87 percent) and Virginia (86 percent) reported graduation rates above the national average.

Experts say that high school graduation rates are an important measure of school success and academic progress, but they also say not to put too much stock in them: Requirements for graduation vary widely across states and can change over time. It is also far from clear what has driven the rise in graduation rates in the city and nationally. Members of the Class of 2015 began their school career during the early days of the Bush administration, long before Obama’s policies took hold.

High school seniors slip in math and show no improvement in reading

In addition, federal efforts to improve graduation rates have helped pressure many schools to show gains, and some education experts worry that some schools are granting diplomas to students who lack the skills they need to succeed after high school.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” high school students have not shown academic progress in recent years: In 2015, high school seniors posted lower scores in reading than they did in 1992, and their math scores were unchanged across the past decade. That same year, fourth- and eighth-graders lost ground on the NAEP math exam, the first declines since the federal government began administering the exam in 1990.

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. acknowledged the disconnect.

“Certainly we share the concern that we have more work to do to ensure that every student is ready for what’s next,” he said. But “overall, the evidence is clear that students who have a high school diploma do better in the 21st Century economy than students who don’t. So having a higher graduation rate is meaningful progress.”

This story has been updated.