- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A larger share of Mississippi high schoolers than ever before is graduating, thanks in part to stronger efforts to keep kids in school but also to changed graduation requirements.

The state Department of Education announced on Thursday that the graduation rate rose to 82.3 percent last year from 80.8 percent in 2015.

That’s still below the national average of 83.2 percent, but the share of students earning diplomas within four years has been on the rise in Mississippi since 2015, when it was 74.5 percent.

“Children that graduate from high school are going to be successful and they’re going to do well around the state,” state Superintendent Carey Wright told the state Board of Education.

The drop-out rate fell to 10.8 percent from 11.8 percent, moving down for the third consecutive year as graduation rates climb.

Wright highlighted the improving graduation rate among special education students, which rose to 34 percent, although it still remains far below the overall statewide rate.

“Most of our students that have disabilities are perfectly capable of performing at a high level,” Wright said.

The trend began after Mississippi changed graduation requirements. Previously, students had to pass four subject-area tests in algebra I, biology, English II and U.S. history to graduate. In 2014, the state Board of Education created alternate paths to graduation including achieving certain scores on the ACT college test, Advanced Placement exams or the test the U.S. military gives to recruits.

In 2015, under legislative pressure, the state changed the rules again, so that, although students still must take the four subject-area tests, they can fail them and still graduate if they get high enough grades on their classwork. Starting in the 2018-2019 school year, the tests will count for 25 percent of the overall grade in each of the four courses.

Paula Vanderford, who oversees reporting for the department, said the changes in requirements “certainly could be one of the reasons” why graduation rates are increasing.

She also highlighted the fact that graduation rates are now included in how the state calculates A-to-F ratings for all high schools and school districts. She said that because of that, some districts have hired employees to make sure students don’t drop out.

“I think districts are doing a better job of tracking students,” she said.

The state is also providing assistance to school districts that have a graduation rate of less than 80 percent.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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