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Graduation Gap Between White, Minority Students is Narrowing, But Persistent

UPDATED

Graduation rates for historically disadvantaged groups of students—including low-income students, minorities, and English-language learners—have increased by at least 3 percentage points each over the past two years, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

In fact, the rates for those groups of students are improving faster than the overall graduation rate, which stood at 81.4 percent in 2012-13, a 2.4 percent improvement since 2010-11. More information on how that rate breaks out by state here.

But maybe don't pop the champagne cork just yet: Although the gap between the number of black and Hispanic students and white students graduating from high school has narrowed over that span of time, it's still persistent.

Graduation rates for black students in the 2012-13 school year reached 70.7 percent, a 3.7 increase since 2010-11. And grad rates for Hispanics hit 75.2 percent, a 4.2 percent increase since 2010-11.

But white students and Asian/Pacific Islander students are still out-performing both other groups, with graduation rates of 86.6 and 88.7 percent, respectively. And while American Indian students had the biggest two-year jump of any minority group, going from a 65 percent graduation rate in 2010-11 to 69.7 percent in 2012-13, they still had the lowest grad rate of any minority group.

What's more, although graduation rates for English-language learners and students in special education have improved by 4.1 and 2.9 percentage points respectively, they're still a lot lower than the grad rates for white and Asian students. Just 61.1 percent of English-learners earned a diploma in 2012-13, while 61.9 percent of students with disabilities did.

Still, Obama administration officials found a lot to celebrate in numbers, even as they acknowledge there's still work to be done.

"The hard work of America's educators, families, communities, and students is paying off. This is a vital step toward readiness for success in college and careers for every student in this country," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "While these gains are promising, we know that we have a long way to go in improving educational opportunities for every student—no matter their ZIP code—for the sake of our young people and our nation's economic strength."

The release coincided with a visit by about a dozen urban school district of officials to the White House to discuss a pending rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Take a closer look at the numbers for yourself. (One note for data geeks: Why do we have data going back only as far as 2010? That was the first year the whole country began using the same, rigorous grad-rate metric. Before that, states tracked grad rates using all sorts of different—and sometimes pretty shady—metrics. So the 81.4 percent is probably an all-time, national high. More here.)

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The Obama administration's prescription for keeping the graduation rate improvement train running? Keep a focus on holding schools accountable for the performance of poor and minority students in any revised version of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The NCLB law, which was signed in 2002, required all states to disaggregate annual achievement data for poor and minority students for the first time in history. And it called for states to intervene in schools that were meeting targets for those students. Civil rights groups want to ensure any update to the law keeps that policy in place.

What's more, a big budget battle is on the horizon. In fact, leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives are slated to release a budget blueprint for fiscal year 2016 later this week. And the White House is warning lawmakers not to cut education spending unless they want to see all this improvement slip away.

In speaking to reporters at the White House about the improvement in grad rates for traditionally overlooked groups of students, Obama called the improvement "a consequence ... of reforms we've initiated." And he said continued progress is "dependent on a budget and an approach at the federal level that says, 'We care about all kids and not just some.'" 

Obama also talked about the need to continue providing interventions and resources for the lowest-performing schools in any NCLB update.

And he apparently hit on those same themes in his meeting with superintendents. He also reportedly told them that no NCLB rewrite at all is better than a bad bill.

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