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Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s high school graduation rate climbed to a record 81.9% in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic closing schools from mid-March through the end of the academic year.

Data released on Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Education shows that the state’s Class of 2020 continued a trend of increasing graduation rates over the past decade, improving 0.8 percentage points over the Class of 2019’s graduation rate. Meanwhile, Colorado hit a dropout rate of 1.8% last year — 0.2 percentage points lower than the dropout rate recorded for the Class of 2019.

Since 2010, when Colorado revised the way it reports the high school graduation rate, that rate has increased 9.5 percentage points overall.

The department’s main takeaway: The pandemic did not have a significant impact on graduation completion and dropout rates, though it may take a sharper toll on future classes of high school graduates. 

Andy Tucker, director of postsecondary and workforce readiness at the state education department, attributes the minimal impact on last year’s class to timing, noting that the vast majority of students had already completed or were on track to complete their graduation requirements by March when the pandemic began to disrupt Colorado schools and communities.

Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, questions whether it’s fair to compare last year’s graduation and dropout rates to those of years prior, when so much about education played out differently in the spring amid COVID-19.

“We lost three months of schooling,” Schoales said.

The numbers reported by CDE would suggest that remote learning is a reliable strategy to raise graduation rates, he said, adding that it’s possible that school districts did a better job educating students through remote classes last year than they did the year before. He’s skeptical that that’s the case.

An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students participated in remote learning. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“But I can tell you that 2020 is not the same as 2019, and so we can’t compare those datasets,” Schoales said.

He’s particularly baffled by a 4.8% improvement in the graduation rate among the state’s poorest students, as reported by CDE. Schools lost contact with many of those students, Schoales said.

“How could they have the biggest increase at the time we have the least contact with them?” he said. “That doesn’t add up.”

Some question how rigorous standards remained through the end of the school year after districts were forced to instruct students remotely.

Tucker, with the state education department, acknowledged that opinions on the ability to compare the Class of 2020 with previous classes will vary, but he believes the state can look at academic outcomes between classes because of the timing of the pandemic.

Schools didn’t pivot their approach to instruction until March, at which point most seniors had completed well over seven semesters of their high school career, Tucker said.

The increase in graduation among students living in poverty could be linked to the variety of options and academic pathways Colorado districts offer students, including opportunities for more experiential learning, Tucker said.

The wealth of education options that students have is also part of the reason that Colorado has made strides in closing gaps in graduation rates between students of color and their white peers, Tucker said. The four-year graduation rate for students of color in the Class of 2020 was 77.1% — up 1.6 percentage points from the 2019 class. 

Bernard McCune, senior executive director for career and college success for Denver Public Schools, is encouraged by that progress but wants to see the gap eliminated.

“It is something that doesn’t need to be closed, but erased,” he said, “and so we’re not moving fast enough if there continues to be a gap.”

DPS has taken specific steps to try to shrink its own gap in graduation outcomes between students of color and white students, McCune said. Among them, the DPS Board of Education passed the Black Excellence Resolution in 2019 that put a laser focus on celebrating Black students and prioritizing their success in school.

The district has also been committed to improving graduation rates and dropout rates for all students, in part by consulting students about their post-secondary plans and tailoring their education around their career aspirations. McCune said the district several years ago expanded its college and career pathways and enables students to take courses aligned with their fields of interest. Their education is enhanced by experiences outside the classroom, including internships and apprenticeships. 

The district also collaborates with technical colleges as well as two- and four-year higher education institutions to help set students on a course toward their career aspirations, McCune said.

That personalization also factors into DPS’s efforts around preventing dropouts. Offering a wide range of academic options, such as traditional, pathway and innovation schools, is a key element of that work.

Taylor Watkins, right, a network administrator, wipes down all the laptops and cords while Spenser Ladd, a campus safety officer, unloads computers from their boxes. Lines of cars and people on foot arrived at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School on April 8, 2020, to pick up computers needed for online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Denver Public Schools officials were on hand to check out some 160 computers to K-12 students on a first-come, first-served basis at 12 DPS locations, including Abraham Lincoln High School. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We’ve been able to differentiate support to students and offer a bunch of options for them to actually reach their goal of high school graduation and then career success,” McCune said.

That flexibility includes the extra time Colorado offers students to earn their diplomas. Students can complete their high school education up until the semester they turn 21.

About 9.4% of students in the Class of 2020, or about 6,300 people, will remain in high school beyond the traditional four-year period. Since 2010, CDE has tracked three-, five-, six- and seven-year graduation rates based on the year the students are anticipated to complete high school. Prior to the 2009-10 school year, students graduating early or late were included in the graduation rate for the year they finished, CDE spokesman Jeremy Meyer said in an email.

How will the pandemic affect the Class of 2021?

McCune is a proponent of measuring graduation outcomes for the Class of 2020 against outcomes from previous classes, noting that students in last year’s class still had to meet high standards that were comparable to the standards of years past. Districts had flexibilities, he said, but those districts that made changes didn’t lower the bar.

He credits students and families for their resiliency and schools and communities for remaining committed to educating students.

“For that rate to increase in the midst of a situation that this country hadn’t seen in over 100 years speaks to just the resilience of our students and families but also the extreme dedication of school staff and community,” McCune said.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, echoes the sense of dedication by educators — dedication to stay connected to students and ensure they were engaged in learning.

Both Baca-Oehlert and McCune worry about how severely disruptions caused by the pandemic will affect the Class of 2021.

“I am concerned. But just like educators around the state were able to pivot and find ways to ensure that students could show their brilliance, I think we can and will do the same this year,” McCune said. “That doesn’t discount that it’s going to take a lot of work and collaboration.”

He emphasized the importance of ensuring that students are engaged and that students, teachers and school staff have all the resources they need. 

That need for resources is particularly critical when it comes to closing graduation gaps between students of color and white students, Baca-Oehlert said. Schools have been operating in an “extremely underfunded system,” she said, adding “we are overcoming lots of barriers in a very underfunded system.”

To keep students on track toward graduation, she urges schools to prioritize students’ mental health, social-emotional learning and basic needs — which need to be met before kids can make any progress with their academics.

“It’s about building those relationships, staying connected and engaged with our students and families,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Tucker, from the state education department, said national research indicates it’s likely that graduation rates could be affected by the pandemic this year and for years to follow. 

“It’s impossible to predict,” he said. “We don’t know for sure. But it’s reasonable to expect that the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on graduation and dropout rates.”

Schoales, of A+ Colorado, remains cautious about the CDE graduation data, noting that it “flies in the face of all the other data out there about the impacts of the pandemic” in terms of disengagement, loss of enrollment, mental health challenges for kids and more.

“It seems a little too good to be true,” he said.

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin