Dr. Carey Wright Credit: Mississippi Department of Education

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Mississippi achieved its highest four-year graduation rate ever while its dropout rate was the lowest in five years, the State Education Department reported Thursday.

State education officials said the high school graduation rate jumped more than two percentage points since last year to 80.8 percent, inching its way toward the national rate of 82 percent. Last year’s rate was 78.4 percent.

The dropout rate for students fell slightly to 11.8 percent, the lowest in five years.

“This is a great day for Mississippi,” said state board of education member Rosemary Aultman after the data was presented to the board.

The state has recently added more pathways to graduation, including allowing seniors who did not pass their end of course tests to combine their score with their course score in order to meet the graduation requirement. In the 2016-2017 year, the subject area test will count for 25 percent of a student’s final grade.

Students may also prove mastery of a subject by scoring a 17 or higher on the ACT in that subject.

State Superintendent Carey Wright said the additional pathways aren’t the entire reason the rate increased.

“I think more importantly, we’ve raised a level of rigor at high schools and we’ve provided a lot more professional development for our teachers,” Wright said. “We’ve built their capacity, and I believe giving kids more options is a good thing.”

The district with the highest graduation rate was Enterprise School District with 98 percent of students who entered high school in the 2011-2012 year graduating in 2016.

However, students in special education — including those with autism, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities such as dyslexia — are still struggling. Only 33.6 percent graduated in 2016, one of the worst rates in the country. The national rate for these students is 63 percent.

One school district, however, is defying that trend. Eighty nine percent of special education students in Long Beach School District graduated with a traditional diploma. The district’s special education director Susan Molesworth says a big part of that is likely because many of its special education teachers are also certified in the content area they teach.

“When you have that teacher with content knowledge with a special ed background, it’s a win-win for students,” Molesworth said.

She also cited the teachers’ willingness to work with struggling students outside of school hours, and the district’s decision to place special education teachers in courses that this group of students traditionally struggle with, even if they aren’t tested areas, like geometry.

J.P. Beaudoin, chief of research and development, says the increase in the overall graduation rate is due to the department’s increased focus on the area.

“What’s get focused on and what gets measured, we see a lot of change in those metrics,” Beaudoin said.

Improvements were made among the state’s younger students as well. The majority of the  state’s kindergartners improved on their assessments this academic year, and the average statewide score exceeded the previous school year. The test evaluates skills such as the ability to recognize letters, match letters to sounds, and understanding that reading is done from left to right across a page.

“Our schools’ and teachers’ focus on literacy is making a significant impact on student learning,” Kim Benton, chief academic officer for the department, said.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.