Montana's high school graduation rates nudged up in 2017.
The Office of Public Instruction released the rates Thursday afternoon.
Graduation rates have generally trended up this decade, rising from 82.2 percent to a peak of 86 percent in 2015. Rates dipped to 85.6 percent in 2016 before inching up to 85.8 percent in 2017.
In Billings, Skyview High registered a record-high rate for Billings high schools since a new graduation rate formula took hold in 2011, hitting 88.47 percent — almost a 2 percent increase from the year before.
West High's rate improved from 84.5 to 85.8 percent, while Senior High dropped from 81.5 to 80.2 percent.
Nationally, student achievement strongly correlates with poverty; Senior High, as School District's 2's poorest high school, typically has the lowest graduation rates.
Graduation rates have gained increasing prominence in education debates. The national rate hit a record high of about 84 percent in 2016.
Montana focused on the issue through Graduation Matters, a grant program that funded local-level efforts to get students through school, under previous Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.
Current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has rolled out a similar initative in conjunction with several other education groups, iGraduate, which will "build on the work of Graduation Matters," according to a release from Arntzen's office.
Montana's completion rate, which includes students outside the usual four-year high school track, increased to a five-year high of 86.6 percent. The completion rate has gone up each of the past five years.
Each of Billings' high schools had an improved completion rate. Senior's improvement was best, from 81 percent to 82.5 percent.
The state's dropout rate, measuring students who leave high school regardless of grade level, dropped .06 percent to 3.33 percent. The lower the rate, the fewer students drop out.
Dropout rates at West and Skyview ticked up, to 3.25 and 3.48 percent. Senior's rate dropped for the second year in a row, down to 5 percent.
In an emailed press release, Arntzen focused on funneling students to job opportunities.
“It is crucial that Montana students have pathways to future success after they receive that high school diploma,” Arntzen said. “I am working with our partners in higher education and private sector industries to expand career pathways so that all Montana students can succeed after high school.”
Skyview Principal Deb Black couldn't put her finger on the reason for record-high graduation rates at her school.
“In my eyes, we’re not doing anything differently than we have all along,” she said. “I think we’re just building on the relationships that we have with our kids and our parents ... our custodians, our teachers, our counselors, our secretaries, all our staff."
Graduation rates don't just measure high school dropouts that stay in a community; if students go to a different school and don't inform their previous school, they can be listed as a dropout. And as students move into a school during the school year, they become part of that school's statistics.
Skyview has introduced some new initiatives in the past several years, like a program designed to hound students about unfinished homework and offer academic support, but implementation has been uneven.
Black recalled talking to Billings Superintendent Terry Bouck about anticipating the rates' release.
“I said 'Terry, I have no clue,'" she said.
That's not to say that Black wasn't ecstatic about Skyview's rate this year; she said she'd be doing cartwheels if it weren't for a recent knee surgery. But she also acknowledged that rates could easily go down next year.
“Every year it’s a surprise,” she said.
The graduation rate among American Indian students saw a significant increase in 2017, improving more than three percent to a 5-year high of 69.4 percent.
Montana has long-held achievement gaps between the overall student body and Native American students, which also often reflect economic status. The 18.9 percent gap in 2017 is the smallest it's been in five years.
"While looking at the achievement gaps it is important to consider factors of opportunity gaps, causes for students failing to thrive, and the supports that schools, communities, and partners can provide to remove barriers," a 2017 report on Montana American Indian student achievement notes.
The 2017 rate for African-American students was 80.1 percent. The rate for Hispanic students was 79.8 percent.
Students who qualify for free and reduced lunch — long used a proxy for economic status — also typically have lower graduation rates and test scores than their wealthier peers.
In 2017, the graduation rate for students qualifying for free lunch was 76.6 percent, up about .2 percent from 2016. The rate for students not in the free lunch program was 94 percent, up about .4 percent.
The rate for special education students was 76.7 percent, compared to 87.1 percent for students not in special education programs.
The rate for homeless students dipped to 61.9 percent, down from about 66.3 percent and a five-year low.