In recent years, the officials in charge of public education in New Orleans have been able to claim steady progress, if not outright victory. Their position has been that the public school system, if not fixed, at least is improving.

But that makes the latest news on high school graduation rates all the more worrying. The citywide graduation rate actually declined a few points this year, and it’s been hovering below a previous high-water mark for half a decade.

At 72 percent, the proportion of New Orleans high school students who manage to graduate on time is well below the national average, lags the state average and is considered unacceptable by top education leaders. 

It also raises big questions about the city’s experiment with independent charter schools, which have largely taken over public education in Orleans Parish since Hurricane Katrina.

The graduation rate is still 18 percentage points higher than in the year before the 2005 storm, but schools now face the possibility that they’ve hit a plateau and need to rethink how to keep making progress.

“You do the easier things, the low-hanging fruit, and then it becomes harder to get grad rates up,” said Doug Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a nonprofit that examines how education reforms have affected the city.

In a recent interview, the city’s two schools superintendents avoided talk of a decline, saying that year-to-year results are mercurial. Recovery School District Superintendent Kunjan Narechania did, however, acknowledge a lull, and Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. rattled off a list of potential solutions.

Graduation rates, one of several measures of the health of a school system, are released annually by the state. They measure the proportion of students in a class who graduate within four years, and they comprise 25 percent of a high school’s all-important performance score.

The narrative told repeatedly in recent years by education reformers contrasts the 54 percent of New Orleans students who graduated in 2004 with the 76.5 percent of students who graduated in 2011, the first year after Katrina that the state again began calculating the rates. The astonishing 22.5-point rise was cause for celebration, proponents have said repeatedly.

But that number and other measures of progress have been met with skepticism by critics who note changes in the state’s calculations over the years, population shifts due to families' moves, and numerous schools' closures and openings after the storm.

To critics, the recent dip — down by 3 points since 2015 and nearly 6 points since 2012, when almost 78 percent of students finished — is more proof that the reforms aren’t the miracle that some have touted them to be.

Many neighborhoods in New Orleans are still impoverished and crime-ridden. And charter schools, for all that they are widely praised locally, still face the same barriers to progress traditional schools faced a dozen years ago, said Andre Perry, an author, columnist and former charter school CEO.

“You are now starting to see why we should not have invested so much in saying, ‘Look how much better we are,’ ” he said.

The drop has caused concern among even the staunchest defenders of charter schools.

Educate Now!, a nonprofit group founded by former state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member and education reform architect Leslie Jacobs, said in a statement Friday that the news was “disappointing.”

And Patrick Dobard, CEO of the charter school support organization New Schools for New Orleans and a former RSD superintendent, said the decline “should make it clear that what has led us to our unprecedented academic improvement will not be enough to lead us to excellence.”

Narechania, for her part, said a standstill has come about as high schools have taken in eighth-graders who have long struggled academically, and as schools, in general, have gotten better about accepting and retaining all young people, regardless of problems they face, because of the city’s centralized enrollment process and other policy changes.

But she was careful not to cite either of those as direct causes for the decline in graduations, after being asked why younger students were still having trouble years after the reforms and as schools lose points in graduation rate calculations when they pressure difficult students to go elsewhere. 

Narechania also pointed to other areas of progress, such as the roughly 16 percent of Orleans graduates who earned advanced credentials on their diplomas — a rate above the state average — and the rise in graduation rates and other measures generally since the storm.

“While I take pride in the progress that we’ve made over the course of the last 10 years, I also acknowledge that a 72.1 percent grad rate isn’t acceptable for the students of the city and for the health of our community,” she said.

Lewis said the rate could climb again if the system continues initiatives that are now in their fledgling stage, like steering students not interested in college to technical careers or investing in programs designed to address students’ behavioral or mental health problems.

Holding charter schools in the city to high standards and recruiting new operators to take the place of those who don’t pass muster is also key, he added.

The group run by Jacobs, a longtime charter schools advocate, said in a statement that officials should also use data to quickly identify students who drop out and should approve more schools that focus specifically on students who have struggled to graduate.

Harris, the researcher, said his organization will release an in-depth look at the city’s graduation rate and factors that affect it within the next year. He did not offer an opinion on whether the success of the reforms has been overblown, but he did say that any school results are “closely correlated” with a city’s poverty rate and demographics.

He also noted that the “plateau” in New Orleans' graduation rates, reforms aside, is mirrored at the state level. The state average increased steadily from roughly 2005-06 to 2013-14, he said, with the rise beginning about two years after the federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed.

That law, which has since been revamped to give states more flexibility, required states like Louisiana to make measurable progress on graduation rates or else face a loss of funding. After ticking up 3 points to 77.5 percent in 2015, the state’s rate fell to 77 percent this year.

“When you put in a policy — especially one that has seemed to generate the same responsibility that (No Child Left Behind) accountability did — at some point, it will plateau,” Harris said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.