As Denver Public Schools marked seven consecutive years of improved graduation rates last week, the city’s education community celebrated the gains while stressing that there is still work to be done.

The district’s graduation rate increased from 61.3 percent in 2012-13 to 62.8 percent in 2013-14, and its overall drop-out rate declined from 5 percent to 4.5 percent, according to data released by the Colorado Department of Education last week.

Observers in and out of the district said the numbers are just one part of the story about whether students are being adequately prepared for their post-high school lives. This is especially true in Colorado, where each district sets its own requirements for graduation.

“A lot of people have worked very hard to increase graduation rates and lower dropout rates,” said DPS board member Barbara O’Brien. “But we have to keep the eye on the prize—students who can do college or career level work without remediation after high school.”

But district and state officials touted the improvement. “We know there is still a lot of work to do, but we’re always encouraged when we see growth,” said Judith Martinez, the director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Reengagement.

🔗Gains over time

The four-year graduation rate in the state of  Colorado increased this year to 77.3 percent.

In Denver, the portion of students graduating in four years has increased dramatically since since 2006-07, when just 38.7 percent of students who had entered as freshman four years before graduated on time.

That’s neither notably better nor worse than districts with comparable student income levels.

How Colorado calculates its four-year graduation rate:
(Number of students receiving a regular diploma within four years of transitioning from 8th grade during the 2013-14 school year)DIVIDED BY
(Number of students transitioning from 8th grade at the end of the 2009-10 school year plus number of transfers in minus number of verified transfers out)
EQUALS
Four-Year “on-time” Graduation Rate
Note: The state first adopted this formula in 2009-10 after federal requirements for tracking graduation rates changed. It has since calculated the equivalent rate for the 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09 school years.  
Source: Colorado Department of Education

There was significant variation between schools: At North High School, the graduation rate increased more than 12.9 percentage points between 2012-13 and 2013-14, while at Manual High School the graduation rate dropped for the second year in a row, to 57.1 percent from 62 percent, after a turbulent year.

Many of the students who do drop out of school are in the district’s alternative schools, which enroll students who have special needs or who are identified as “high-risk.” Last year, 21.8 percent of alternative school students dropped out, compared to 2.1 percent in non-alternative schools.

Gaps among racial and ethnic groups, males and females, and subgroups of students identified as having special needs lingered. For instance, 73.5 percent Denver’s students who identified as white graduated in four years, compared to just 39.5 percent of American Indian students. (See charts for more detail.) 

At a time when the district’s high-income population is growing faster than the number of low-income students, low-income students still graduate at a lower rate than their peers: 56.9 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated on time.

Kate Neal, the director of programs and evaluations for Colorado Youth for a Change, an organization focused on dropout prevention and recovery, said that this mirrored trends in the rest of the state.

She said Denver’s improvements were tied partly to several recent district and community efforts. One is a program that identifies students on the verge of dropping out before they leave school, created with Colorado Youth for a Change. Another is the growth of credit recovery programs, which allow students who don’t have the credits they need to graduate to catch up on coursework quickly.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributed the improvement to the work of the district’s teachers, principals, and guidance counselors.

🔗Searching for meaning

A sign on the wall at North High School in Denver. North's graduation rate was this year's "most-improved" in DPS.
A sign on the wall at North High School in Denver. North’s graduation rate was this year’s “most-improved” in DPS.

Colorado is the only state that has no state-level set of graduation requirements, other than that all students must take a civics course.

Van Schoales, the director of A+ Denver, a research and advocacy nonprofit, said that means it’s not always clear that earning a diploma signifies that a student has gotten a strong education. “We need to make sure diplomas are actually meaningful,” he said.

DPS students in public Colorado colleges and universities are more likely than their peers in the rest of the state to require remedial courses, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education. But that number dropped significantly between 2009 and 2012.

Nicole Veltze, the principal at North High School, said that her school had been encouraging students to take more or more rigorous courses than current DPS currently requires.

“Over the last few years, we’ve increased our expectations for students above and beyond the DPS requirements,” she said. “We expect our students to graduate without needing remediation.”

Meanwhile, holders of high school diplomas still fare better in the job market than those without a diploma.

“It’s an enormous positive change for our community to have more students finishing high school, ready to go on to college and career,” Boasberg said at a press event at North High School on Thursday. “In today’s economy, it’s actually essential.”