Report: 34% of urban students not graduating high school on time in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Graduation rates in Rhode Island’s poorest communities are on the rise, but one in three students still aren’t completing high school on time, according to a policy brief released Monday by Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy group.

The four-year high school graduation rate in the state’s urban core – Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket – improved from 56% in 2007 to 66% during the 2011-12 school year. The rest of the state posted an 83% graduation rate in 2012, up four percentage points from 2007.

“Keeping our students in school and on‐track to graduate is critical for their success,” Elizabeth Burke-Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said in a statement. “Education is the key to economic opportunity, and this issue brief focuses on specific ways to support and engage Rhode Island students to stay in school and graduate.”

The report was issued on the same day policymakers from across the state were set to convene for the Providence Grad Nation Summit, a day-long forum aimed at reducing dropout rates in Rhode Island. The summit is part of the national Grad Nation campaign, an initiative led by the America’s Promise Alliance that hopes to increase the national graduation rate to 90% by 2020.

Minorities, English-language learners, low-income students and special needs students all trail their counterparts when it comes to earning a high school diploma, a basic milestone that results in higher incomes and makes adults less likely to receive public assistance or engage in criminal activity, according to the report.

The median income for Rhode Island adults who didn’t complete high school was $22,260, compared with $29,839 for those with a diploma and $52,365 for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to data compiled between 2010 and 2012 by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Given the link between educational attainment and family economic status, schools have a critical role to play in preparing children and youth for employment in a high-skills economy,” the report stated.

The report touted significant upticks in graduation rates in Central Falls – which improved from 46% in 2007 to 68% in 2012 – and Pawtucket – which jumped from 48% to 67% – as reasons why the urban core saw its completion rates increase ten percentage points in five years.

At 56%, Providence’s Central High School had the lowest graduation rate in the state in 2012, according to a review of data published by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Classical High School, a city school that requires students to take an entrance exam, boasted the highest graduation rate in the state that same year: 96.8%.

Approximately 1,867 high school students in Rhode Island dropped out of school during the 2011-12 school year, according to the report.

The report also focused on the leading indicators for a student’s likelihood of not completing high school on time, including an inability to read proficiently by the third grade; failing one or more subjects in the 9th grade; and chronic absenteeism, which means students who miss at least 18 days of school in one year.

In a list of recommendations for improving graduation rates, Kids Count suggested raising awareness of the importance of earning a high school diploma; increasing access to early childhood programs; ensuring that all students can read proficiently by the end of third grade; assisting students with the transition from middle to high school and promoting multiple pathways for graduation.

Beginning with the class of 2014, students must score “partially proficient” on the math and English sections of the 11th-grade New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam in order to be eligible for a diploma.

Students who fail to earn a qualifying score have the opportunity to retake the exam twice during their senior year and are eligible to use scores from other tests – such as an AP exam, the SAT or the Accuplacer – in order to meet the requirement. Students only need to show improvement when they take the NECAP exam in 12th grade – meaning they could still graduate without showing partial proficiency on the test.

All told, approximately 4,000 students needed to improve their scores when they retook the NECAP last month. The results won’t be released until early next year. In rare instances, the state has said it will consider granting a waiver to students who fail to earn an adequate score on the exam.

In addition to the NECAP component of the graduation requirements, students are also required to complete course work, as well as performance assessments such as a portfolio or senior project, to prove they are qualified to receive a diploma.

Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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