Advocate staff photo by ANDREA MABRY -- Kendrell New hugs Claire Sather, academic dean, after receiving her high school diploma at the NET Charter graduation ceremony at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center Saturday morning, January 11, 2013. New, who is 20 years old, says that "graduating feels awesome" after a tough high school career and failing the Louisiana graduate exit exam nine times.

New Orleans high school graduation rates shot higher last year, offering an encouraging signal to local education leaders and helping the state meet a long-held goal of exceeding an 80% graduation rate statewide.

Public high schools in New Orleans awarded diplomas to nearly 78% of eligible seniors in 2018, up from nearly 73% a year earlier, according to data released Wednesday by the Louisiana Department of Education.

The jump of 5 percentage points was among the largest of any Louisiana parish, helping to raise the overall state rate to 81%, up from 78% in 2017 and above the 80% threshold that state education leaders set as a goal more than a decade ago.

Both the state and Orleans Parish graduation rates were still below the national average of 85% last year. But the latest figures mean the state has finally reached a target spelled out in a state law in 2009, when the rate was a dismal 67%.

And for Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., the data suggest that a focus in recent years on improving outcomes for low-income students and students with disabilities has started to pay dividends.

"Excellent progress is being made every day, especially for our students most in need," Lewis said. "These outcomes reflect the hard work of our students and educators along with the support of our families and the community at large."

In New Orleans, 76% of economically disadvantaged students in the class of 2018 graduated, slightly higher than among the same group statewide, while the rate of graduation for students with disabilities in New Orleans exceeded the state average by 7 percentage points, with 66% graduating on time in the city compared with 59% statewide.

Orleans Parish also saw a gain in graduating African-American students, with the rate increasing from 72% in 2017 to 78% last year. The rate also increased nearly 5 percent in that time for English learners, or students from other cultures still learning English, with 36% graduating in 2018.

Louisiana's statewide graduation goal was spelled out in a 2009 measure sponsored by then-state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, and then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards, which said that the graduation rate should reach 80 percent starting with the class of 2014. Edwards is now the governor. 

However, there was no enforcement legislation spelled out in the legislation, and class after class continued to miss the target, adding more years to the decades of low achievement in Louisiana public school classrooms.

The announcement of the latest data, which is typically done with a press release from the state Department of Education, was instead made Wednesday on the south steps of the State Capitol and included state Superintendent of Education John White, Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed, four members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, state Board of Regents Chairman Marty Chabert and a handful of state lawmakers.

"Today is a banner day, and I am delighted to be a part of it," Reed said.

In a telephone interview, Nevers praised the announcement. "It has been a long time coming," he said. "That is a huge accomplishment."

But while graduation rates are an important metric used to measure schools' success, other data released in November showed schools in the New Orleans area still have a long way to go before they meet a more demanding set of national education standards that state officials are in the process of implementing.

The state's most recent performance scores and its closely watched letter grades showed that, under a stricter scoring system aimed at boosting standards, not a single school district in the seven-parish New Orleans metro area received an A grade in the 2017-18 school year, and many were found to be in need of "urgent intervention" to better support at-risk students.

The state as a whole maintained a B grade for a second consecutive year.

High school performance scores are calculated using graduation rates and other benchmarks including ACT scores and growth scores.

In terms of graduating seniors, state officials said Louisiana's rate of improvement has outpaced the rest of the U.S. since 2012. The graduation rate rose 9.1 percentage points over that period, compared with 4.6 percentage points nationally.

Officials said students earning a college degree or career credential rose from 48% percent last year to 50% in 2018. That number includes students who do college-level coursework or earn industry-based credentials.

"It is not enough in today's world to simply earn a high school diploma," White said.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said, "The achievement today shows what is possible when we set high goals."

Officials also said 21,280 students qualified for TOPS — Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships — which is up 31% since 2012. TOPS pays most college tuition for students who qualify.

The state's current target is for Louisiana to graduate 90 percent of its public high school seniors by 2025.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.