Louisiana graduation rate edged up in 2013 _lowres (copy)

Photo provided by Dana Simmons

After nearly a decade of trying, Louisiana's public high school graduation rate has yet to hit 80 percent despite a state law that mandated doing so by 2014.

Critics contend the issue points up the state's long struggle to raise student achievement.

Cade Brumley, the new chairman of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the problem is an old one.

"In Louisiana, cohort graduation rates haven't always been a central focus of conversation," Brumley said in an email response to questions.

But others said improved graduation rates in recent years and tougher diploma requirements than some states mean Louisiana is moving in the right direction.

"The state has made really good gains," state Superintendent of Education John White said.

Louisiana's graduation rate has risen by 9.8 percentage points since 2010 compared with 4.8 points nationally, trimming the gap between the state and national rates by 50 percent — from 11 points to 5.5 points, according to department figures.

"At the same time, you can acknowledge that, for a society in the 21st century, you want to be well beyond 77 percent of your kids graduating in four years," White said.

White announced on June 23 that 77 percent of the class of 2016 earned a diploma.

That was a drop from 77.5 percent for the previous class, which had the second largest hike in 10 years — one that, if it had happened again this year, would have pushed the state rate over 80 percent for the first time.

The U.S. average was 83.2 percent for the class of 2015, the latest national figures available.

That list includes Arkansas at 84.9 percent and Texas at 89 percent.

Louisiana finished ahead of seven states after its big jump last year.

The 80 percent target stems from a 2009 law sponsored by former state Sen. Ben Nevers, a Bogalusa Democrat who recently served as chief of staff for Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Nevers conceded the goal was ambitious, especially since the state's graduation rate that year was 66.6 percent.

Officials of the state Department of Education took the goal seriously and sprang into action, said Debra Schum, a former top official of the agency.

"A lot of attention," Schum said of the department's response to the law.

Some officials were designated as graduation coordinators, which meant they worked with school districts and provided resources to boost the rate.

School data were scrutinized, in part to ensure students who needed help to graduate got attention.

Ninth-grade academies appeared, a move aimed at separating younger students from their older peers to help them clear the biggest dropout grade.

"There was a specific plan," Schum said.

However, the latest snapshot shows the difficulty of sustaining gains.

The state has about 400 public high schools, and those with graduation rates in the 50s and 60s hinder the push for 80 percent.

"There is not a culture on the importance of education," said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who was one of the co-sponsors of Nevers' 2009 law.

All the same, Appel said rate gains in recent years show remarkable progress.

"We have to hold the line on our reforms," he said, referring to sweeping changes in public school operations.

Gary Jones, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and an educator for 46 years, said Louisiana's requirements for a diploma have to be scrutinized in evaluating graduation rates.

"It is easy to increase the graduation rate," Jones said. "You just simply lower the standards.

"But what we are trying to do is increase the graduation rate and increase the standards. That makes a difference."

Aside from reaching 80 percent, comparisons with other states are tricky.

"Part of the problem is everybody isn't measuring graduation rates the same way," said Schum, former executive director of college and career readiness for the state Department of Education.

Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish School District, said the high school graduation cohort actually starts in grade school, not the ninth grade.

In an email, Milton said the graduation rate in his district was around 70 percent when he arrived in 2010 before exceeding 80 percent five years later.

"Humbly, I learned that if a student fails in the elementary grades, the statistics were not on that student's side for success in graduation or graduation on time," he said.

Brumley, superintendent of the DeSoto Parish school system near Shreveport, said his district's graduation rate was in the 70s five years ago compared with 94.2 percent today.

He said the turnaround stemmed from improved high school instruction, new ways of monitoring student progress and removal of nonacademic barriers.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said the state's large number of private school students skews the public high school graduation rate, particularly when compared with other states.

Louisiana is tied for second nationally — 14 percent — in its percentage of private school students, according to the website Kelly Loves Data. Most of those students graduate, but because they attend private schools are not included in the calculations, which would increase Louisiana's graduation rate, if they were included.

"We are talking about more than 100,000 kids in private schools in Louisiana," Erwin said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.