This year's graduation rates aren't known yet, but the 2018 statewide rate of 89.2% marked Arkansas' third-straight year of improvement, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. The statewide rate was 84.9% for the class of 2015.
In 2011, the Education Department began collecting states' adjusted cohort graduation rates -- the percentage of first-time ninth-graders in public high schools who graduate with regular diplomas within four years. The national rate was 79% in 2011.
Top 10 Graduation Rates
Here are the top 10 states by high school graduation rate for 2016-17, the latest year for which national statistics are available:
- Iowa, 91.0
- New Jersey, 90.5
- Tennessee, 89.8
- Texas, 89.7
- Kentucky, 89.7
- West Virginia, 89.4
- Alabama, 89.3
- Nebraska, 89.1
- Vermont, 89.1
- New Hampshire, 88.9
14. Arkansas, 88.0
United States: 84.6
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
These are U.S. median usual weekly earnings by educational attainment in 2018. Data are for people 25 and older; earnings are for full-time wage and salary workers.
Doctoral degree: $1,825
Professional degree: $1,884
Master’s degree: $1,434
Bachelor’s degree: $1,198
Associate degree: $862
Some college, no degree: $802
High school diploma: $730
Less than a high school diploma: $553
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey
The most recent national rate is 84.6%, from the graduating class of 2017. Arkansas' rate that year was 88%.
Arkansas' improved graduation rate shows up among most subgroups of students, as well.
For example, 77.5% of black students graduated in 2015 and 85.6% graduated in 2018. The rate among Hispanic students increased from 84.5% to 85.8%. The rate for economically disadvantaged students increased from 81.7% to 86.8%, according to the state Department of Education.
The only subgroup that didn't improve was English learners, which went from 85.9% in 2015 to 82.7% in 2018.
Subgroup graduation rates were reported for the first time on report cards released this year for Arkansas schools, school districts and the state.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson heralded the graduation rate news as "one of the most satisfying educational statistics that we've received in recent years," according to a department news release from last month. Schools have focused on improving educational experiences for students over the past several years, from increased course options to more flexibility to attend college classes, internships and work activities during school days, according to the release.
The department, looking to future improvement, cited the School Counseling Improvement Act, which Hutchinson signed into law in March.
The act requires school districts to develop a comprehensive school counseling program and plan. It is meant to reduce time that counselors spend on administrative duties so they may spend at least 90 percent of their time providing direct and indirect student services, up from 75 percent in a 1991 law.
The state is holding school districts accountable for graduation rates now more than ever, which may help explain the rise, said Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Graduation rates count toward the grades schools get on their report cards. The state also gives financial awards to the top 10 percent of public schools that achieve high student academic growth, which includes graduation rates where applicable.
In Northwest Arkansas, 10 of the region's 15 traditional public school districts had better graduation rates in 2018 than they did in 2015. Seven exceeded the 2018 state average.
Bentonville has posted at least four straight years of improvement, from 88.1% in 2014 to 93.5% in 2018, according to state data. Gateway, the Bentonville School District's alternative education program for high school students, is one possible reason for that.
The number of graduates emerging from Gateway has steadily increased from 42 in 2016 to 75 this year, according to Christie Jay, the district's director of federal programs, who also oversees Gateway.
Gateway is set up so students can earn as many as 10 credits per year as opposed to the seven they could earn in a regular high school, said Sarah Miser, a Gateway administrator.
Each of the area's other large school districts -- Springdale, Rogers and Fayetteville -- offer alternative educational environments similar to Gateway.
Chad Dorman frequently skipped school during his freshman and sophomore years in Rogers.
He moved to Texas to live with his father. There he found the help he was seeking. His attitude toward school turned around, as did his academic achievement.
Upon returning to Rogers, he enrolled at the Crossroads Learning Center, the school district's alternative education center, where he got all the academic help he needed. He entered Crossroads in the fall of 2017 with 11 credits and left with 25.
Arkansas requires public school students to achieve at least 22 credits to graduate. Rogers requires 24.
Dorman graduated from the district this weekend. He's on his way to attending the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa.
Without Crossroads, he said, "I would've dropped out a long time ago."
CREATIVITY SEEN AS KEY
Alternative education settings are just one way school administrators across Northwest Arkansas are working to improve graduation rates.
Bentonville Superintendent Debbie Jones said a combination of factors are at play.
Jones credited Leandra Cleveland, the district's data specialist, with ensuring Bentonville's numbers are accurate and the district is not held accountable for students who moved to other schools.
The district is setting up "real, relevant learning opportunities" for students that let them better understand what career possibilities await them, Jones said. The district also is growing its virtual school offerings to appeal to students who prefer that sort of delivery.
Students who are expelled are offered the chance to participate in virtual learning, she said.
A state law that takes effect this summer requires all public school districts to offer expelled students digital learning courses or alternative educational services.
Fayetteville is another district that has made significant strides in its graduation rate, from 79.9% to 92.2% in the past three years.
Jay Dostal, who's finishing his first year as Fayetteville High's principal, said improvement starts with a staff committed to student success. The goal is to reach a graduation rate of 100%, he said.
"It's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach, and we need to be creative in finding ways for kids to be successful," Dostal said.
And the earlier schools intervene to catch kids who need more help, the better, he said.
"If we are trying to help kids graduate and we're just getting to them in their 11th or 12th grade year, that's too late. The graduation rate actually starts in the elementary schools. This is truly the work of an entire school district," Dostal said.
Educators have had to adapt to a new generation of students with shorter attention spans, Dostal said. That's meant moving away from delivering lectures all day and toward facilitating self-directed learning.
Springdale, the state's largest school district, had an 86% graduation rate last year, the lowest rate among the Northwest Arkansas' four big districts.
Marcia Smith, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, cited numerous ways Springdale tries to get students to graduate.
One is to connect junior high students to a program of study or a specific interest so the staff can personalize education plans for the youths. Students are more engaged in school if they are connected to the learning, Smith said.
The district hired an academic coach a few years ago to push high school students toward high achievement.
Mike Fotenopulos has filled that role since 2017, promoting college and career readiness among students.
McKenzie said smaller schools tend to have higher graduation rates, which she attributes to closer personal relationships between students and the staff.
The office also has done some research indicating that high schools that serve only 10th-through-12th grades have higher graduation rates than ninth-through-12th-grade schools, even when controlling for things like poverty, she said. Springdale is the only large Northwest Arkansas district with high schools that are grades 10 through 12.
McKenzie said there seems to be something positive about not forcing students to adjust to a new building at the same time they start accumulating credits.
And, McKenzie noted the increased graduation rates haven't corresponded with an increase in college-going rates in Arkansas.
"Even though they're graduating at somewhat higher rates, it doesn't necessarily mean they are more prepared for life after high school," she said. "ACT scores have been consistently underwhelming, and so what is the higher grad rate really an indicator of, is the question."
Metro on 05/20/2019