Colorado’s graduation rate hit its highest level in a decade for the Class of 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that upended the academic year and closed schools in March.
Last spring, 81.9% of high school seniors — 55,220 students — graduated from public and charter schools in the state, the Colorado Department of Education reported Tuesday. That’s up 0.8% or 981 students compared to the Class of 2019.
Colorado’s high school graduation rate has increased 9.5% since 2010, the agency said.
The state’s dropout rate also improved. During the 2019-2020 school year, 8,561 seventh- through 12th-graders, or 1.8%, left the education system — the lowest rate in a decade, the department said. That’s an improvement of 716 students compared to the previous year. About 83% of school districts reported dropout rates at or below the state average.
Though the pandemic disrupted the spring semester by closing schools and postponing many commencements, it likely did not impact how many seniors graduated, said Andy Tucker, director of postsecondary and workforce readiness at the education department. That’s because most students already had completed or were on track to complete their graduation requirements, he said.
Future classes may not fare so well. Enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year is down 3.3%, or nearly 30,000 kids, according to preliminary state data. While declines are sharpest among preschool and kindergarten students, Tucker said keeping students engaged has proved challenging across grades without in-person school.
“What research is telling us is that it’s very possible rates may regress next year and in the coming years due to the fact that student engagement in the virtual space has been difficult,” Tucker said. “That trend may continue for the next four years as currently enrolled students progress through their high school careers.”
Graduation rates climbing
The percentage of Colorado students who graduate within four years of starting high school has been incrementally climbing since 2016, after stagnating at 77.3% in 2014 and 2015, according to state data.
Tucker attributes this growth, at least in part, to graduation guidelines the state began implementing in 2016 that encourage schools to offer a wider variety of classes and programs that help students reach college and career goals.
Because Colorado is a local control state, requirements for graduation vary by district, but many offer concurrent enrollment in classes for high school and college credit, capstone projects or industry certificates as ways to demonstrate academic competency other than traditional scores, credits and courses, Tucker said.
“Many more programs exist now than did 10 years ago that help students determine what they want to do,” he said. “What that does is builds relevancy in education. Students remain enrolled and remain engaged because they view their education as relevant.”
Of Colorado’s 10 largest districts by enrollment, eight exceeded the statewide average. Denver Public Schools, the state’s biggest district, and Aurora Public Schools fell short of the average graduation rate at 74.6% and 79%, respectively. (See a breakdown below.)
The four-year graduation rate among students of color increased 1.6% to 77.1%, according to the state education department. That rate was up slightly among most racial and ethnic groups, including American Indian students (up 1.7% to 316, or a 66.6% graduation rate); Asian students (up 1.3% to 2,145, or 91.2%); Black students (up 1.3% to 2,439, or 76.6%); Hispanic students (up 1.4% to 17,195, or 75.4%); and students who identify as two or more races (up 1.7% to 2,076, or 82.3%).
Graduation rates dipped among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, down 3.2% to 126 kids, or 72.8% overall rate, the state reported. White student graduation rates remained steady at 86% or 30,923 students.
Drop-out rates largely consistent
The percentage of students who dropped out of school remained largely consistent across racial and ethnic groups between the class of 2019 and the class of 2020.
According to the state, 4% of American Indian students, 0.7% of Asian students, 2.8% of Black students, 1.1% of white students and 1.6% of students who identify as two or more races dropped out. The dropout rate among Hispanic students decreased year-over-year, to 2.8% from 3.2%, while the rate among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students increased, to 3.9% from 3.4%, the agency reported.
Graduation rates improved across specialized learning groups. Title I students experienced the largest percentage increase in graduation rate, up 4.8% to 65.4%, followed by migrant students (up 2.9% to 71.7%), students with disabilities (up 2.6% to 61.8%), students whose first language is not English (up 1.6% to 70.2%), economically disadvantaged students (up 1.4% to 72.3%) and homeless students (up 1.2% to 56.7%). Graduation among gifted and talented students remained flat at about 94%.
Students experiencing homelessness saw the highest rate of dropout, at 4.9%, followed by Title 1 students and students whose first language is not English (both 3.4%), migrant students (3.1%), economically disadvantaged students (2.6%), students with disabilities (2.1%) and gifted and talented students (0.4%). These rates remained flat compared to the year prior.
A total of 6,341 students, or 9.4% of the Class of 2020, remained enrolled to complete their graduation requirements, the education department reported. Given the pandemic and surrounding circumstances, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement that a rising graduation rate and falling dropout rate were “wonderful accomplishments.”
“We know how tough the spring was for our seniors, with many not able to attend their proms or graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Anthes said. “But we are so proud of the students, their parents and the teachers who helped them finish the year strong. History will look back at this generation of children and marvel at their perseverance and dedication.”
Graduation rate of Colorado’s 10 largest school districts
Denver Public Schools: 74.6% or 4,626 graduates
Jeffco Public Schools: 84.8% or 5,259 graduates
Douglas County School District: 91.2% or 4,498 graduates
Cherry Creek School District: 88.6% or 3,879 graduates
Aurora Public Schools: 79% or 1,960 graduates
Adams 12 Five Star Schools: 84% or 2,556 graduates
St. Vrain Valley School District: 87.8% or 2,040 graduates
Boulder Valley School District: 91.1% or 2,374 graduates
Poudre School District: 84.4% or 1,764 graduates
Colorado Springs District 11: 70.7% or 1,416 graduates
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