Raleigh, N.C. — High school graduation rates in North Carolina cracked the 80 percent mark in 2012 for the first time, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said Thursday.
The graduation rate jumped to 80.2 percent, the highest four-year graduation rate ever reported in the state and nearly 3 percentage points higher than the 2011 rate, according to the DPI's annual ABCs of Education report, which shows how students performed on end-of-year and end-or-course tests in grades 3 through 12.
In 2011, the graduation rate was 77.7 percent. In 2006, the rate was 68.3 percent.
State schools Superintendent June Atkinson called the latest numbers historical.
"It means better opportunity and better economic prospects for the thousands of North Carolina's young adults and their families," she said. "I could not be more proud of our young people, their families and especially our teachers and principals. This is a major step forward."
"Every child needs a high school diploma to compete, and that's just the first step up the ladder," Gov. Beverly Perdue said. "None of us are proud of 80 percent, but wow, it's a good day, a great way forward for North Carolina."
The largest gain in 2012 came among Hispanic students, who went from a 68.8 percent rate in 2010-11 to 74.6 percent last year. American Indian students also improved, from 69.7 percent to 73.7 percent over the same period.
Graduation rates were up among other local school districts, including those in Durham, Lee and Wayne counties.
Durham Public Schools' four-year graduation rate was 77 percent, an increase of 3.1 percent points from 2011.
Lee County Schools' graduation rate was 84 percent, up from 80.4 percent last year.
Wayne County Schools saw an 80.1 percent graduation rate, compared to 74.6 percent the previous year.
In Wake County, 80.8 percent of high school students graduated, about the same from the previous year.
The improving graduation rate immediately became a question of whether North Carolina's schools were doing better despite recession-era funding cuts that have forced schools to hire fewer teachers even as enrollments increased. About 1.5 million students attend the state's public schools.
"We haven't had the type of fiscal support that we should have had for the last couple of years," state school board chairman Bill Harrison said. "And there is great poverty in this state, regardless of what members of the General Assembly seem to think. There are kids who are in need."
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, praised students, parents and school staff and downplayed the role of funding.
"Our graduation rate shows that improving our education system is not simply a matter of dollars and cents," Tillis said in a statement. "We must continue to give superintendents, principals and teachers more flexibility and ensure that education is driven by factors inside the classroom rather than by distant administrations and political rhetoric."
The ABCs of Education report also shows that 79.5 percent of schools met or exceeded their academic growth standards, a decline from 81.4 percent in 2010-11 and 88 percent in 2009-10.
The report also showed nearly four in 10 of the 660,000 students in grades 3 through 8 were not reading and calculating math at grade level.
There was improvement with the 2,500 public schools meeting learning objectives in reading and math for their overall student bodies, while also hitting separately measured goals for minority groups, students from low-income or limited-English households, and disabled students.
Fifteen schools are considered low-performing schools, meaning less than half of students scored at or above achievement level.
Down from six a year ago, three of those schools were in Halifax County, where a Superior Court judge in 2009 ordered the state to intervene because of low test scores.
Halifax County Schools officials say the district has improved by an average of nearly 10 percentage points since 2008-09, and the district's high school graduation rates also jumped from 71.9 percent in 2011 to 75.5 percent in 2012.
The report also included Annual Measurable Objectives scores for the first time, a model that replaced the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standard required by the No Child Left Behind law. North Carolina is among a number of states that have been granted federal waivers from No Child Left Behind requirements.
Under the new system, schools report a total number of specific targets for groups of students along with how many of those target were met.
Under the old performance system, schools were required to meet all targets for groups of students to pass. The new system allows them to show progress in a given number of targets without having to pass every one.
Last year, 1,165 schools in North Carolina, or 46.2 percent, met all their annual measurable objectives.