- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama’s graduation rate increased to a record 80 percent for the Class of 2013, the state school superintendent announced Tuesday.

Superintendent Tommy Bice revealed the figure during budget hearings with Alabama legislators and drew a standing ovation from the lawmakers at the end of his presentation.

Beginning with the graduating class of 2011, all states have used the same graduation measures that were designed in conjunction with the National Governors Association. Bice said Alabama’s graduation rate has risen from 72 percent for the Class of 2011 to 75 percent for the Class of 2012 and now to 80 percent, which is the highest figure ever recorded in the state.

“I’ve been doing this 35 years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a better piece of news,” Bice said.

The state school board has set a goal of getting the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

To do that, Bice told legislators that Alabama needs more teachers in grades 6-8, where he said dropout problems develop. He said the most dropouts occur in the ninth grade with students who are behind their grade level. He is asking legislators for $32 million to hire an additional 450 teachers for the middle school grades.

Senate budget committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said the Legislature must pay back money borrowed from a state trust fund to operate public schools during the recession, and there won’t be much extra for the 2014-2015 school year.

Bice said each 1 percentage point increase in Alabama’s graduation rate equates to about 600 students getting their degrees. In the past two years, about 4,800 more students have graduated on time, he said.

“Not only is this increase significant for our students, but it significant for our state’s long-term economic impact as well. More students graduating from high school means more students going to college, starting careers, and becoming productive, tax-paying citizens,” he said.

Despite lean state education budgets since the recession, Bice and other education officials said public schools have been able to raise the graduation rate by providing specialized services and adult mentoring to students at risk of dropping out, addressing school absence problems, and helping students identify their skills and abilities.

Not all states have received their graduation rates for the Class of 2013 and a national average is not yet available.