John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education

Earlier this week, education leaders stood on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to release results indicating the graduating class of 2018 was the highest-achieving in state history.

In 2018, more than 40,000 high school students across Louisiana graduated from high school. That’s 5,000 more students than graduated in 2012. Since 2012, the percentage of students entering ninth grade and graduating four years later has increased from 72.3% to 81.4%. Our state’s graduation rate, once nearly 10 points off the national average, is now nearing the national average.

What makes this week’s announcement historic, however, is not just improvement in high school graduation rates. Instead, it’s improvement in the skills, credentials, and opportunities our graduates have earned that makes the announcement so important.

A high school diploma is simply not enough education to ensure a productive path to meaningful employment and self-sufficiency in today’s Louisiana. We should be encouraged that our graduates are not ending their aspirations as they finish 12th grade.

This week’s announcement, for example, noted that more than half of all students who entered ninth grade in Louisiana not only graduated four years later, but also graduated having passed a college course while in high school, having passed an Advanced Placement (AP) course, or having earned an industry-based credential that validates them as eligible for employment in a high-wage field.

Now 50.4%, this “credential attainment rate” was barely 38% in 2013.

Similarly, the class of 2018 saw 5,000 more graduates earn a TOPS scholarship than earned TOPS in 2012. The number of African-American students earning TOPS has grown by 32% over that period.

For these students, that means free tuition at a university, a community college, or a jobs training program. The next generation of engineers, pipefitters, software developers, and nurses will find its roots in these outcomes.

This is huge progress. But these record-breaking gains did not come easily or without controversy; they are a result of many years of relentless focus on results by educators, families, and policymakers.

In recent years Louisiana has strengthened accountability standards, setting a goal that by 2025, 90% of students earn a high school diploma.

At the same time, the state has grown Jump Start, Louisiana’s nationally recognized career and technical education program. It has supported opportunities for students to earn early college credit through dual enrollment, AP, International Baccalaureate, and the College Level Examination Program.

The state also introduced financial aid planning and college readiness assessments as requirements for graduation, and it aligned high school diploma requirements with admissions standards for the state public university system and TOPS scholarships, a move that earned Louisiana national recognition as one of only four states in the nation to do so.

As a state, we now must ensure every high school graduate has a clear and affordable path to a prosperous, self-determined life after graduation.

Currently, there is no statewide system to support recent graduates in achieving a good first job, if they are not bound for four-year colleges or the military. Too many graduates are taking extraordinary financial risks in borrowing funds for college tuition or in not going to college and taking on low-wage jobs with no opportunity for promotion.

So, as we celebrate extraordinary increases in high school graduation, postsecondary credentials and TOPS achievement, let us recommit ourselves to assuring a path to what comes next for every graduate.

Our state has proven once again that its students can accomplish big things. More progress is on the horizon.

John White is Louisiana state superintendent of education.

Decade-long effort pays off: Louisiana public high school graduation rate reaches 81 percent