President Barack Obama announced a record high graduation rate of 83.2 percent on Monday, though significant gaps remain for disadvantaged students.
In the 2014-2015 school year, 83.2 percent graduated high school in America. That's the highest graduation rate since 2010-2011, when all states started measuring graduation in the same way.
Montana's Office of Public Instruction piggybacked on the announcement, touting its record high of 86 percent in the same school year. That puts Montana 19th in the nation.
Beneath the broad improvement, however, significant gaps remain for disadvantaged students, particularly Native American students.
Native students' graduation rate improved more than the national average (6.6 percent compared to 4.2 percent). However, they still have the lowest graduation rate of all student ethnic groups at 71.6 percent.
Native students are the largest minority student population in Montana, 11.4 percent last school year. They have consistently had the lowest high school graduation rate, though it's edged higher in recent years, from 63 percent in 2010-2011 to 66.6 percent in 2014-2015 – 20 percentage points behind the statewide average for all students.
OPI has consistently tied the state's ever-increasing graduation rate to Graduation Matters Montana, a campaign launched in 2010 in Missoula to decrease dropouts. The effort, which also included increasing the graduation rate, has now been implemented in 58 communities statewide.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau doubled down on Graduation Matters on Monday.
"We brought attention to the issue and provided leadership, and marketed it as Graduation Matters Montana," Juneau said. "We provided information, but ... these are all grassroots efforts and community-based. They all look different.
"I think it will be sustainable beyond my administration because they're such strong community-based programs."
Since Graduation Matters Montana took hold at the state level in the 2010-2011 school year, graduation rates increased from 82.2 percent to 86 percent.
While Native students' graduation rate has increased slowly statewide, Missoula County Public Schools has seen a spike.
Nine Native students (56 percent) graduated in 2007-2008. That jumped to 44 students (84 percent) in 2014-2015.
Glenda Weasel came to MCPS' Indian Education program in 2002, when the department only had a couple of people.
"The first big part is we have more people in our department," said Weasel, Title VII/Native American specialist and data support staff. "We went from one ... to now we're going to have six, to where we can be in more schools.
"For all the schools, trying to do that for one person. ... Everything we do now, it blows me away because we still feel like we're not doing enough. We're very thankful we have the support of our superintendent and of our school board."
A Native American specialist is assigned to every school.
They have "lunch clubs" at most schools. High schools have Native American-focused classes. The department hosts an event at a different school every month, inviting both Native and non-Native students and their families to come learn about the culture and have fun. Every spring, they host the Native Youth Powwow.
"One of the big things that we do for our high schools is we ... encourage our students to be successful in the classroom, through grades and attendance," said Melissa Hammett, Native American specialist and Native American business teacher. "We check up on them and we make sure to include their family."
They organize practice sessions for Native students taking the ACT, and the department works with Native Generational Change to provide graphing calculators. Native American specialist Jake Arrowtop works with Big Sky Native students on their senior projects.
"We're just a constant face in every school for our Native students," Hammett said. "They know they have someone to go to, someone that's going to be there to support them and encourage them."
MCPS is unique in that way, Weasel and Hammett said.
Every school year ends with a ceremony honoring graduating Native students, now an event so big that it has to be hosted at DoubleTree Hotel.
Weasel said in the past, many Native students "aged out" of the system, contributing to the low graduation rate.
"They didn't have enough credits to graduate," she said. "It was for many different reasons. They transferred from a different area, their parents moved around a lot so they weren't able to settle down and get credits here and there. Sometimes it's life; they had a baby."
And because there are so few Native students in comparison to the total student population, one change can significantly throw off graduation and dropout data.
While graduation rates continue to rise, there has been debate over whether those students are better prepared for college and the workplace.
Last month, OPI announced a slight increase in ACT scores this spring.
"It's not like we sat back and said, 'Graduate more kids,'" Juneau said. "At the same time we raised academic standards in math, English, art, science, health and P.E. So not only are more students graduating, I would argue they're better prepared than ever for college, career and the military."
In 2011, Montana adopted its version of the Common Core State Standards, which are reported to raise the bar in math and English. This summer, the Board of Public Education adopted new standards in art, health and P.E. This fall, the board adopted new science standards.
Montana is one of 20 states that offers the ACT exam free to all high school juniors. As in the other states, scores are typically lower since they are open to all students and not just those who opt to take it as they plan for college. In Montana last year, the ACT replaced the Smarter Balanced standardized test for federal accountability purposes.
Montana students' average composite score increased to 20.0 this spring, up from 19.9 in 2014-2015. Nationally, a 20.0 is the average score (out of a possible 36).
Montana's average composite score in each ACT section was:
- 20.8 in reading
- 20.3 in science
- 20.1 in math
- 18.6 in English
- 17.8 in writing
Nationally, ACT scores were down this spring, which ACT itself attributed to more students taking the exam — mirroring what's happened in Montana.
"Even as the size of the state's graduating class taking the ACT has grown, the average ACT Composite score has only slightly decreased from 20.4 to 20.3," according to the ACT. "This is normal, as average scores tend to decrease with a broadening of the testing base."
Though Montana students are meeting the national average score, they're not meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. ACT says a benchmark is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject test to indicate a 50 percent chance of getting at least a B, or a 75 percent chance of getting at least a C, on the corresponding college course.
In Montana this spring:
- 56 percent met the English benchmark
- 41 percent met the reading benchmark
- 38 percent met the math benchmark
- 32 percent met the science benchmark
- 22 percent met all four benchmarks
"There's still definitely work to do, but one thing I would point out is four years ago, only 60 percent (of Montana) students used to take the ACT," Juneau said. "As you add more numbers to the test, it's going to take awhile to make sure we're reaching the bars we need to. I think over time, because of the new high academic standards and the new bar for college and career readiness ... we'll see higher scores in the future."