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East High School

East High School students in the Class of '22 gather for a freshman assembly during the first week of classes in August 2018.

Madison School District officials said Wednesday they are pleased with the trajectory of minority and low-income students graduating in four years, despite a drop in the graduation rate for black students last year.

In 2018, 65.6 percent of black students in the district graduated in four years, down 7 percentage points from when the rate spiked in spring 2017, according to data released this week by the state Department of Public Instruction.

The four-year graduation rate for all Madison students was 81.5 percent last spring, or 8 percentage points below the statewide average. That was down from 83.0 percent in 2016-17 but up from 73.7 percent in 2011.

Overall, the district’s graduation trends are pointing in a positive direction, but Superintendent Jen Cheatham said plenty of work remains to be done on closing gaps between white and minority students and those from different income backgrounds.

“We are totally unsatisfied by (the achievement gaps),” Cheatham said Wednesday in an interview. “We’re going to keep striving ahead. We’re going to keep getting those numbers up year over year and prepare students not just to graduate but for what comes after high school.”

Since the start of the decade, steady improvement has been made on the graduation rate for black, Hispanic and low-income students at Madison high schools. But the percentage of black students who graduated in the class of 2018 halved the gains made in 2016-17 when African-American students experienced an extraordinary 14 percentage point jump to 72.6 percent.

In 2011, only about half of African-American students graduated within four years.

“We’re still happy to see the positive trend line holding despite a one-year dip,” Cheatham said. “We think this is our work beginning to pay off.”

Cheatham said despite the district celebrating the large leap for the class of 2017, she suspected a decrease could happen in 2018 given the graduation rate for black students had been increasing by a few percentage points year over year.

She said the district would need to look at school data “in a more granular way” in order to explain the decrease.

“It’s wonderful to celebrate any single-year jump or to deeply analyze any single-year dip,” Cheatham said. “But when it comes to the overall health and quality of services that we’re providing at the district level, it is that trend data that is telling us the story.”

Starting in the 2016-17 school year, DPI allowed school districts to include students who completed summer school in their graduation data.

That change has added about 5 percentage points to the graduation rate for black students in the Class of 2017, said Andrew Statz, the district’s chief accountability officer. When the formula change for summer school is removed, the district is still making progress, he said.

Improvements for other groups

Since the start of the decade, the four-year graduation rates for low-income and Hispanic students have also been on the rise.

Last year, 80.6 percent of Hispanic students in Madison schools graduated within four years — a more than 20 percentage-point increase since 2011.

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch also experienced a jump in completing high school during that period. Low-income students had a 53.6 percent four-year graduation rate in 2011. That figure grew to 71.1 percent last year.

Cheatham said she sees the trends as “evidence of systemic improvement.”

She attributes the growth to a clearer definition of the skills students need to learn in their core classes, an emphasis in the past five years on keeping ninth-grade students on track to graduate and some programs such as AVID, which prepares students for post-secondary education.

Statewide figures

For Wisconsin students in the class of 2018, the overall four-year graduation rate rose to 89.6 percent, jumping a percentage point since 2013-14.

As in Madison, minority students statewide continue to lag their white peers.

Statewide last year, 69.3 percent of black, 77.8 percent of American Indian, 82.3 percent of Hispanic, 85 percent of multiracial, 91 percent of Asian, 93.5 percent of white and 94 percent of Pacific Islander students graduated in four years.

The biggest gap remaining was for students with disabilities. In the 2017-18 school year, 68.5 percent of students with disabilities graduated, down half a percentage point from 2013-14, and almost 25 points below the 92.3 percent graduation rate for students without disabilities.

English language learners improved graduation rates to 70.1 percent from 64 percent five years ago, compared to a 90.2 percent graduation rate for English-proficient students.

Among low-income students, 80.2 percent graduated in four years, compared with 94.5 percent of students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

State Journal reporter Bill Novak contributed to this report.

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Logan Wroge is the K-12 education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has been with the newspaper since 2015.

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