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Mass. not top 10 for high school graduation rates

Massachusetts failed to crack the top 10 for the best high school graduation rates in the nation and also had among the lowest rates in New England, according to data released Monday by the US Education Department that for the first time provides a uniform calculation for graduation rates.

Some 83 percent of Massachusetts 12th-graders during the 2010-11 school year graduated within four years, a rate that tied the Bay State with six other states — Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.

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Iowa had the highest rate at 88 percent. Next were Wisconsin and Vermont at 87 percent; Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas at 86 percent; and Maine and Illinois at 84 percent.

Previously, states reported graduation rates using their own methodology to the Department of Education — a situation that made it impossible to accurately compare rates between the states.

But Paul Reville, Massachusetts secretary of education, cautioned that the federal data still do not provide a complete apples-to-apples comparison, noting that standards to earn a diploma can vary greatly among the 50 states — making it easier for students in some states to graduate than in others.

“Our graduation standard is higher than most states,” Reville said. “It’s not surprising we wouldn’t have the highest rate. But with that said, we are striving to improve our graduation rate.”

Massachusetts in the last few years has initiated a number of efforts to get more students to their high school graduations.

For instance, the state is overhauling the training of teachers who instruct students who lack fluency in English — a group that has one of the lowest high school graduation rates.

Local school districts, such as Boston, also are more aggressively seeking to reenroll students who have dropped out of high school and are providing them with more personalized programs — especially in connecting classroom instruction to real-life job opportunities — to keep them in school.

“A lot of this is generating motivation and giving [at-risk students] hope that education is meaningful and can lead to better life outcomes,” Reville said. “We have too many kids dropping out.”

Not making the top 10 on a national measure of academic strength is unusual for Massachusetts, which routinely secures among the highest scores in nationwide exams, such as the SATs.

The Department of Education is requiring that states use graduation rates, calculated under the new methodology, as a key measure in holding local schools accountable for student achievement.

“By using this measure, states will be more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed,” said US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Ultimately, these data will help states target support to ensure more students graduate on time, college- and career-ready.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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