Utah is gaining ground quickly when it comes to high school graduation, according to a new report.
The Beehive State tied with two others to rank 10th in the nation for its graduation rate in 2009, according to Education Week's annual Diplomas Count report released Thursday. That's up from 30th in the nation a year earlier though large gaps still remain between the graduation rates of some ethnic groups.
The report, which calculates rates using a different formula than the one used by Utah, pegged the state's overall graduation rate at 78.4, up from 71.9 percent the previous year.
"There is so much great work going on out in the schools and districts really working with kids, and I think it just demonstrates that incredible effort," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent, of Utah's climbing graduation rate.
She said the report confirms what state education leaders have been saying for years: Utah has one of the highest rates in the country.
It's an assertion that's been made some years despite seemingly contrary data from the Education Week report. In the past, gaps between graduation rates calculated by the state and Education Week have spanned more than 15 percentage points.
Recently, however, the federal government began requiring that all states use a new formula to calculate graduation rates, and for the first time in years, Education Week's results aren't that far off from those released by the state.
Under the new federally required calculation, Utah estimated its graduation rate at 72 percent for 2009, the same year examined by the Education Week report. And most recently, Utah reported a graduation rate of 76 percent for the Class of 2011.
Utah's rate dropped dramatically from previous calculations under the new federal formula, because it changed who counted as a graduate. The federal formula essentially tracks individual students over time to determine the percentage of ninth-graders who earn regular diplomas four years later.
The Education Week report uses a different method.
"It's not as accurate because our data is based on tracking individual students and monitoring exactly what happens to them," Park said.
Park said she's hopeful that comparing rates between states will become easier in the next couple of years as states continue to implement the new federally required formula.
But calculation differences aside, everyone seems to agree on at least one thing: Utah's graduation rate is improving.
According to Education Week, Utah's graduation rate grew by 2.7 percentage points between 1999 and 2009. And under the state's own calculations, using the federally required formula, the graduation rate improved by 7 percentage points between 2008 and 2011.
Mark Bouchard, who is part of Prosperity 2020, a Utah business-led movement to invest in education, said the uptick in graduation rates shows good progress, but that there is still work to be done.
"We saw that and I guess our initial thought would be to congratulate our team in K-12 for continuing to work and to get better results," said Bouchard. "Certainly I think our long-term goal is continued improvement … We just have to keep working hard and keep working together to continue to move education along."
Challenges remain, however, when it comes to closing gaps between the graduation rates of certain groups of students in Utah and across the nation.
In Utah, for example, Latino students, as a group, trailed other ethnic groups with 52 percent graduating in 2009, according to Education Week. That figure came close to the state's own calculations for that year, showing that 51 percent of Latinos graduated, though that number increased to 57 percent among the Class of 2011.
"I think it highlights the fact that certainly there's room for improvement," Park said.
Jose Enriquez, Alpine District director of diversity and founder of Latinos in Action, said Utah must take a more systemic approach to improving achievement among Latino students. Latinos in Action focuses on leadership, service learning and literacy, sending high school and junior high students into elementary schools to work with students. The program is now in 85 schools, mostly in Utah, he said.
"The Latino community, they will no longer be a minority in the future, and if we don't prepare them, we are going to be remediating constantly," Enriquez said. "I think it behooves us as a state, as a system, to really hone in on what we can do collectively, systematically, where everybody takes ownership. Once that gets done, the numbers will change."
Melinda Rogers contributed to this report.
To learn more
O Read Education Week's annual Diplomas Count report, released Thursday, to track Utah's jump into a tie for 10th in the U.S. for its graduation rate in 2009, up from No. 30 the year before. > bit.ly/KjUmhd