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Montana’s high school graduation rate continued to creep up last year, according to information released on Wednesday morning by the Office of Public Instruction.

In the 2015 class, 86 percent of students in their four-year cohort graduated, up about half a percent from the previous year and up almost 4 percent from the 2011 class. It's the highest rate Montana has recorded since the OPI began measuring the statistic in 2000. 

“We all know that more high school graduates means a stronger economy for our state,” Juneau said Wednesday in Missoula. “It means higher wages; it means more opportunities.”

Rates at all three Billings public high schools dipped compared to last year. Skyview registered an 83.2 percent rate, down about 2.5 percentage points from last year’s graduating class. West’s rate was just more than 83 percent, down about a quarter-percentage point from last year. Senior’s rate was about 80.1 percent, down about 1 percentage point from last year. The rates of all three schools are still higher than their 2011 rates, when West and Skyview had rates of about 80 percent and Senior had a rate of about 72 percent.

Raising graduation rates has been a major priority for Juneau, who unveiled a "Graduation Matters" initiative in 2010 that more than 50 communities across Montana signed on to. 

Statewide dropout rates continued to decline, dropping from 3.7 percent in 2014 to 3.4 percent in 2015. Since 2009, dropout rates fell 1.6 percent. 

Dropout rates for Senior went up about 1 percent from last year to 5.59 percent, stayed about the same at Skyview at 3.96 percent and dropped almost 1.5 percent at West High to 4.29 percent. 

Billings high schools, with about 5,000 students enrolled, are often compared to other AA schools. The next largest high school system, Missoula, has about 3,500 students. Billings schools typically have a lower graduation rate than other AA schools. 

At rural schools, graduation and dropout rates can fluctuate wildly because differences of one or two students have a larger impact with small graduating class sizes. 

For individual schools, it can be difficult to find takeaways from year-to-year results, said West Principal Dave Cobb. 

"Because you're working with human beings, it's difficult to pinpoint what the cause and effect was" when rates improve or get worse, he said. Long-term trends and student-level tracking are most useful to educators, especially for struggling students. 

"They're on our radar coming in as freshman," Cobb said. "We need to find out what's working for kids and what's not working" on an individual level.

Long-established racial gaps continued. While the graduation rate for American Indian students has increased more than 6 percent since 2009 and fewer students are dropping out, the graduation rate for American Indian students was still more than 20 percent behind the rate for white students. 

This story has been corrected to show the state graduation rate at 86 percent. The Gazette initially reported numbers published on the Office of Public Instruction data website, which were incorrect. The graduation rate is 86 percent "on the nose," according to a report released by OPI later this morning and an OPI spokeswoman. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.