High school graduation rates remain steady; gaps persist

Person stands out of a car's sunroof to receive a diploma.
Christopher Benson received his high school diploma while standing through the sunroof of a car. The Tech High School graduate was one of hundreds of students who had to forego a traditional commencement ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic and receive their diploma at a drive-through graduation.
Paul Middlestaedt | MPR News 2020

Updated: 5:45 p.m.

Minnesota's high school graduation rate held steady for the Class of 2020, despite an abrupt shift toward the end of its senior year as early stages of the pandemic shuttered school buildings across the state.

Data released Thursday from state education officials show that 83.8 percent of students graduated from high school within four years, a historic high for Minnesota.

Minnesota schools improved their graduation rates for all students in 2020, except Black students and English language learners. The rates went up most dramatically for Native American students, who saw a gain of almost 5 percentage points, and for students receiving special education services, who saw a bump of 2 percentage points.

Still, Minnesota schools have not managed to shake their nearly worst-in-the-nation education inequalities.

Only about seven 7 of 10 Black and Latino students graduated on time last year, an interruption in what had been an upward trend. High schools graduated Black students at a rate of only 69.2 percent, down from 69.9 percent in 2019.

English language learners graduated at a rate of just over 66 percent. That was down a full percentage point from 2019.

Joe Munnich, managing director of the Twin Cities nonprofit Generation Next, likes to think about high school graduation as the finish line in a race. 

Imagine a group of runners starting a race toward graduation, he said. By the time the c=Class of 2020 cohort reaches the K-12 graduation finish line, the runners are pretty unevenly spread out.  

“Many of these students did well as a system, as a community in supporting them to get across that finish line if they were close,” said Munnich, whose group strives to make Minnesota education more equitable. “But some of those students who were more deeply affected did not finish at the rate that similar students finished in the past.” 

Just 55.7 percent of Native American students, for example, graduated on time in 2020. But there’s reason for optimism: That group saw the most dramatic increase in their graduation rates. And students receiving special education services saw a 2 percentage point gain. 

Overall, fewer Minnesota students are dropping out of high school. Less than 4 percent of Minnesota students dropped out in the 2019-2020 school year. 

COVID-19 forced most students to switch to distance learning for the last three months of their 2020 school year. There isn’t yet a lot of statewide data about how pandemic learning affected the Class of 2020. Last year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), for example, were canceled. 

But according to Munnich, the new graduation data is an important indicator of how racial injustice and COVID-19 have affected students differently. 

“Think about that race where...it’s like a thunderstorm comes across. Some, who are close to the finish line, they could get hit by some hard rain, and it’s hard, but they’re close and they can finish,” Munnich said. “There are others that maybe just started. And their entire time, their start, is affected by this thunderstorm. Some of them may be closer to the impact and feel it much more strongly.” 

There has long been a predictability to who bears the brunt of difficulties when it comes to succeeding in Minnesota’s education system. Students who are white and well-off have historically graduated high school at much higher rates than students who are Native American, Black, Hispanic or who have a lower socioeconomic status. 

Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said the task of eliminating barriers so that every student has a chance to academically succeed is a top priority.

“Minnesota has been one of the leaders in education across the nation, but it is not that way for all students. Our job really is to eliminate predictability,” Mueller said. “There should be no predictability based off of your income, if you’re diverse linguistically, based on your sexuality or your gender or your race or your ethnicity or your religion or your ZIP code.”

Minnesota has held steady in its efforts to get students to that finish line — even in a pandemic. But the inability to equally support all students in reaching that goal continues to be a defining characteristic of Minnesota schools. 

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