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Minnesota high school graduation rate drops in 2021 after years of growth

Graduation rates had been growing in Minnesota since 2016. The class of 2021 was the first to experience a full school year affected by the pandemic.

Central High School
Students leave Central High School in Duluth in this undated file photo.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s four-year high school graduation rate dropped last year after several years of growth, according to data released Wednesday, March 30, by the state education department.

The class of 2021 saw its graduation rate shrink by .5% from the previous year's class, with 83.3% of students completing high school in four years, Minnesota Department of Education numbers show. It was the first graduating class to experience a full school year of the COVID-19 pandemic, something education Commissioner Heather Mueller said created tough circumstances for students, teachers and families.

“The slight decrease in our graduation rate reinforces how challenging the pandemic has been on our students,” Mueller said in a release announcing the new data . “We remain committed to ensuring every single Minnesota student graduates from high school, whether that is in four years, five years, six years or more.”

In addition to the 57,137 students who graduated in 2021 after four years of high school, 3,594 students also earned a degree five to seven years after starting.

Graduation rates had been growing in Minnesota since 2016 when the state reported an 82.5% graduation rate. By 2020 the rate had reached 83.8%. The rate drop for 2021 was driven by a .3% increase in the dropout rate and .2% is due to causes unknown to state education officials.

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Heather Mueller headshot.jpg
Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Education

On a phone call with reporters following the data release, Mueller said the graduation rate drop shows the state should do more to invest in education, and called for lawmakers to support Gov. Tim Walz’s recommendation that the state increase education funding.

“The class of 2021 is the first graduating cohort that experienced a full year impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “Seeing a slight decline this year emphasizes the importance of assuring Minnesota public schools have the funding and resources necessary to support all students.”

In response to the graduation rate drop, statewide teachers union Education Minnesota called for the Legislature to invest more in education, starting by using the state’s historic $9.25 billion budget surplus.

“The drop in the overall graduation rate and persistent opportunity gaps show our students need more support,” said union president Denise Specht. “Minnesota has the money to invest in the resources students and educators need.”

Demographics

Education department data breaks down graduation rates by student demographic group. Black students saw their rate increase by 1.2% to reach 70.4% in 2021. White and Asian students, who had graduation rates of 89% and 89.1% in 2020, respectively, saw drops in 2021. The Asian student graduation rate decreased by 1.7% while the white rate decreased by .7%.

This year marks the first time the state education department will report student data in the state’s American Indian demographic category, which differs from the federal definition as it allows students to be reported as Native American even if they belong to other racial and ethnic groups as well.

Under the state definition, native Americans saw their graduation rate increase by .1% in 2021 to reach 58.5%. Under the federal definition, the group saw its graduation rate drop by 3.2% between 2020 and 2021, reaching 52.5%.

The state also tracks graduation rates for students receiving special education services, English learners and students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Their rates changed as follows:

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  • Special education, 1% drop to 64%
  • English learners, 1.5% drop to 64.7%
  • Free or reduced-price meals, 1.3% drop to 70.3%
Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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