RALEIGH — North Carolina’s high school graduation rate continued to rise to record levels, sparking praise for educators and providing political fodder for the state’s ongoing education-funding debate.
Figures released Thursday show that 82.5 percent of the state’s public high school students graduated this year in four years, up from 80.4 percent in 2012. The state’s graduation rate has risen by 14.2 percentage points during the past seven years.
“All North Carolinians who have taken part in the lives of our children deserve credit for this,” said State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson.
Atkinson said the continued gains in the graduation rate show the results of 13 years of state investment in education. She cited efforts such as more career and technical education programs and early-college programs which allow high school students to get both a diploma and two years of college credit.
But Atkinson, a Democrat, said she fears funding cuts by the Republican-led legislature would jeopardize the state’s continued graduation success.
“We want to strive to be as close to 100 percent as we can,” she said. ‘We’ve done this with all the structures in the community that we have in place. The challenge is continuing that progress when we may no longer have the funding for those structures.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, also praised the hard work of educators in a statement issued Thursday. But McCrory also took the opportunity to reiterate his call to reduce the number of tests given to students.
“These results are evidence that if we reduce the mandatory testing burden, as we have suggested, and allow our teachers to teach, their creative and innovative spirit will take our students to a higher level of academic achievement,” McCrory said in his statement.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank that advocates for small government, said it’s to be expected that “Democrats and Republicans would use the graduation rate as a means to play political football.”
Stoops said that one thing to consider is that the weak economy may be keeping some students from dropping out. However, he said, the gains can’t be attributed to any one factor or any program.
Trend for improvement
North Carolina’s gain mirrors similar trends taking place nationwide.
In January, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that graduation rates were at the highest rate nationally since 1974. Based on 2010 data, the latest year for which national figures are available, the center reported that 78.2 percent of high school students were graduating on time.
North Carolina, like other states, used to report inflated graduation numbers. But states were forced to come up with a more standardized measurement as part of the federal No Child Left Behind program.
In 2006, the first year North Carolina reported out under the new formula, the graduation rate stood at 68.3 percent. Since then, the graduation rate has increased overall and among the different subgroups.
The graduation rate for black students is now 77.5 percent, compared to 60.4 percent in 2006. For Hispanic students, it’s risen 23 percentage points in the past seven years to 75.3 percent. For economically disadvantaged students, the rate has increased 20.5 percentage points since 2006 to 76.1 percent.
The rate for white students is now 86.2 percent, up 12.7 percentage points since 2006.
“We should recognize that there are plenty of students who are still not graduating,” Stoops said.
Locally, the Wake County school system’s graduation rate increased slightly from 80.6 percent to 81 percent. But it marks the first time that Wake, the state’s largest school system, has fallen below the state’s average graduation rate.
“Graduation rate is a key indicator of our success as a school system, pre-K through 12. Overall, the district has made some progress, but not at the rate we would like to see,” Wake Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said in a written statement. “We will be working with our schools to ensure that district programming, resources and expectations at all levels are clearly aligned to support an increased graduation rate.”
Wake is now also tied with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system at an 81 percent graduation rate. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg saw its rate jump sharply from 76.4 percent the prior year. In other results:
• The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system’s graduation rate was 92.6 percent, up from 90 percent.
• The Durham school system’s graduation rate increased from 76.9 percent to 79.6 percent.
• The rate increased slightly in the Johnston County school system from 82.4 percent to 82.5 percent.
• The Orange County school system was the only Triangle district to see a decrease, with its graduation rate falling from 85.4 percent to 82.5 percent.