Mississippi high school graduation rates have risen again.

For the third year in a row, Mississippi’s four-year high school graduation rate is up.

With 82.3 percent of high schoolers graduating in four years, new information shows, Mississippi is approaching the national average of 83.2 percent.

Paula Vanderford, the Mississippi Department of Education’s executive director of accreditation, said she attributes much of the increase to the state’s relatively new accountability system, which grades school districts and schools based on graduation rate and other components.

Previously, the state incorporated the graduation rate into the grades of only the top two categories of schools which were formerly called “Star” and “High Performing.”

At the same time, the state’s drop-out rate has fallen from 11.8 percent to 10.8 percent.

There is also more of a focus on dropout prevention and upkeep of that data, Vanderford said.

“When students leave the districts now, it’s important they (the schools) know whether they’re transferring to a nonpublic school or going to be home schooled,” Vanderford explained.

The Mississippi Department of Education recently added alternative options for graduation that could replace the passage of the end of year subject-area tests. Before the 2014 school year, students had to complete the required number of Carnegie units and pass subject-area tests in order to earn a diploma.

Now, students may graduate by passing the required courses and either passing the subject-area test, obtaining a score of 17 or higher in the subject on the ACT or earning a C or higher in a dual enrollment/dual credit course.

In the 2018-2019 school year, students will be able to use subject-area test scores as 25 percent of their final course grades.

Vanderford said she’s sure the additional options had some impact on the uptick in the graduation rate, but she also credited the professional development across the agency and its positive effect on student achievement.

“The MDE has strategically focused its efforts on professional development around higher standards of learning and literacy to build the capacity of our teachers,” chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Education Rosemary Aultman said after the announcement. “The Board has also opened multiple pathways for students to earn a diploma. All of these efforts have helped more students receive a diploma.”

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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.