Utah's overall high school graduation rate ranks in the bottom half of the country and the Beehive State is doing even worse when it comes to minority students, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Monday.
Utah had a lower overall graduation rate than 31 states, a higher rate than 14 and tied with three others, according to the data that shows graduation rates for 47 states, the District of Columbia and the Bureau of Indian Education in 2010-2011. The state's overall graduation rate was 76 percent that year.
The state fared far worse when it came to some groups of minority students. Utah had the fourth-lowest graduation rate for Latinos in the country at 57 percent. It tied with Minnesota for the second-lowest graduation rate in the nation among Asian/Pacific Islander students at 72 percent.
"We're disappointed we're not ranking higher as compared to other states, and we're definitely going to continue to be focused on it and working to improve it," said Judy Park, state associate superintendent, noting that she expects to see improvement when new graduation data is released for Utah.
She said the low minority rankings are likely a reflection of Utah's changing demographics and the need to improve in that area. She also said she believes there's a correlation between the rankings and Utah's lowest-in-the-nation per pupil spending.
"I think it just shows that that's an issue," Park said of per pupil spending. "When there's not adequate funding put into education, it's going to be reflected in how we compare to other states."
Analis Carattini-Ruiz, a Latina representative on the state school board's Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee, called Latinos' low ranking in Utah "disheartening." Latinos are Utah's largest minority group, making up about 15.5 percent of all Utah public school students.
She said a problem in Utah schools is a lack of Latino educators and role models. She said educators must also focus on culturally responsive teaching and creating welcoming environments for Latino students.
She cited the success of Latinos in Action, a program in schools throughout the state that sends high school and junior high students into elementary schools to work with students and perform community service. Carattini-Ruiz, who is also an alternative language services coordinator for the Canyons District, said Canyons has seen its Latino graduation rates rise since she brought the program there three years ago.
"We have a lot to learn in terms of reflection on other cultures and infusing that into our everyday teaching so our kids can identify with what we're talking about, can identify with people in their community or have guest speakers that look like them," Carattini-Ruiz said. "Infusing a lot of those elements into our education system is critical because sometimes our kids feel like they don't belong there."
Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a Utah business-led initiative to boost education, said part of the challenge is that Utah became diverse more recently than a number of other states. He said the state's approach to education must change accordingly, recognizing that not everyone learns in the same way or comes from the same educational background.
"We should view it as an opportunity," Bouchard said, "as a wake-up call for Utah to really start focusing our attentions on the largest growing areas of the state and start thinking more strategically about the kinds of investments we need to make in order to improve in those areas."
He said innovation and strategic investments in education are key.
The preliminary data released Monday, for the first time, shows graduation rates for all states calculated using the same new, federal formula. That formula, implemented in Utah for the first time last year, changed who counted as a graduate. It resulted in lower graduation rate numbers for many states, including Utah, which had previously calculated its rate at 90 percent, though Utah's graduation rate has been improving over the last four years.
The old formula, for example, counted as graduates students with severe cognitive disabilities who took a certain state assessment but didn't earn regular diplomas; students who earned GEDs; and special education students who took more than four years to graduate. Now, none of those categories of students can be included as graduates.
Also, students who transfer to higher education, to a Utah College of Applied Technology, who withdraw from high school due to illness or injury, or who earn certificates of completion (meaning they didn't leave high school but didn't earn enough credits to graduate either) must now be counted as nongraduates, whereas before they weren't included in any calculations.
The statewide graduation rate is also now being calculated starting with ninth-graders instead of with 10th-graders.
The U.S. Department of Education required all states to use the new formula in an effort to make comparisons between states easier and ensure rates weren't inflated at the state level. The department called the data released Monday preliminary and said it would release final rates in coming months.
State graduation rates
R The U.S. Department of Education on Monday released graduation rates for most states as calculated under a new federal formula. Some of the top-ranking states:
1. Iowa • 88%
2. Wisconsin and Vermont • 87%
3. Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas • 86%