The gap between the percentage of Black and white students graduating high school in Boston widened dramatically last year, as the city’s overall graduation rate declined for the first time in more than a decade, according to newly released state data.
Of the 4,347 students in the Class of 2019, 73.2 percent earned a diploma within four years of starting ninth grade. That rate was notably lower than for the Class of 2018, which saw 75.1 percent of students earn diplomas within four years.
The decline comes as Massachusetts officials conduct their first comprehensive review of the Boston system in a decade, with members of the state education board urging Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to take aggressive steps to address low performance in the state’s largest school system. The drop in graduation rates will probably add more urgency to those calls.
“I wish the news today was better, but I’m a firm believer that we can’t make progress if we don’t fully face the facts,” said Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a statement. “The fact is, we have more work to do to help more students earn their diplomas.”
Cassellius, who took over as superintendent one month after the Class of 2019 graduated, said overhauling high schools is a top priority. In the coming months, for instance, she intends to present the Boston School Committee with a proposal to have high schools adopt MassCore, a state-recommended set of courses that align with admission requirements to state universities and include such measures as four years of math and a minimum of five electives — an area where many Boston high schools fall short.
BPS officials have repeatedly stressed they are working to reduce achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds, but the new graduation rate data reveal that the racial disparity in high school graduates widened notably.
Specifically, the four-year high school graduation rates for Black students dropped from 76.4 percent in 2018 to 71.9 percent last year. By contrast, the four-year graduation rate for white students increased from 80.6 percent in 2018 to 81.9 in 2019.
Consequently, the gulf in graduation rates between Black and white students has more than doubled, resulting in a 10-percentage-point divide.
“I’m disheartened to hear these numbers,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II of the Boston Network of Black Student Achievement, who also serves on a School Committee task force on opportunity and achievement gaps. “This is not acceptable and needs to change. … Why does there continue to be an exacerbation of the gaps?”
Latino students continued to record the lowest graduation rates among the system’s racial groups. The portion of Latinos earning diplomas dropped more than a half percentage point in 2019, to 67 percent. Their rate lags white students by 15 percentage points and Asian students by nearly 25 percentage points.
Moreover, graduation rates for Black and Latino students in Boston significantly trailed statewide averages for the demographic groups. Statewide, 79.9 percent of Black students earned a diploma within four years, while 74.4 percent of Latino students did.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the declining rates and the widening gulfs among racial groups is alarming.
“The numbers speak for themselves: BPS is not meaningfully supporting students of color so they can graduate from high school, let alone college,” he said. “BPS must dedicate more resources to close achievement and graduation gaps across diverse student populations. The failure to do so traps students of color in a cycle of poverty and hardship.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu said the school system has reached “a breaking point for acknowledging how systemic the issues are and how urgently they need to be fixed.”
“The time for little patches here and there or experimenting with a new program at a small set of schools… has long passed,” she said in an interview. “We need to accept the reality that the system itself so deeply needs equity and reform across the board. We need to have the will to make changes for all our high school students, not just for some of them.”
In visiting high schools across the city last year, Wu said she was struck by the glaring disparities, from the physical condition of the buildings, to the level of resources the schools had, to the opportunities students were given.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who released a plan last year calling for overhauling the city’s high schools, called the growing disparity in graduation rates disturbing.
“Our BPS students deserve better and we need a real plan to fix this,” she said in an e-mail.
Riley, the state education commissioner, declined to comment.
The last time Boston experienced a decline in its high school graduation rate was in 2007, when the rate dropped more than 1 percentage point from the previous year to 57.9 percent, according to state data. Since then the portion of high school students earning diplomas climbed steadily, except for 2013 when the district recorded the same rate as the previous year.
Boston School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto said the system has already begun to take steps to overhaul high schools,stressing high school reform is a top priority. “I am confident that the release of this data will only strengthen the district’s resolve to increase rigor across our schools, support additional improvements in our dropout rate, and improve educational outcomes for all of our students,” Loconto said in a statement.
Across the state, 88 percent of the 75,000 students who should have graduated last spring earned diplomas, nearly identical to the rate in 2018 of 87.9 percent. Results were more mixed among the state’s smaller cities.
Brockton, Lowell, and Springfield, for instance, declined overall; Worcester was relatively stagnant; and New Bedford climbed dramatically from 58.6 percent in 2018 to 71.9 percent last year.
Springfield officials focused on the positives in announcing their results Friday. In a press release, they noted that their high school drop-out rate hit an all-time low at 4.4 percent, representing a more than 50 percent reduction over seven years. Officials also singled out individual high schools for praise in raising graduation rates over that seven-year period.
“We want every single student to stay in school so we will keep working hard towards that goal,” said Springfield Superintendent Daniel Warwick in a statement.
Cassellius also highlighted bright spots in the data for Boston, noting the school system’s five-year graduation rate continued to climb, an encouraging indication that students are not giving up on a diploma even after their classmates have graduated and moved onto college. For the Class of 2018, that means 80 percent of students who started high school in fall 2014 earned a diploma within five years, five percentage points higher than the four-year rate.
“We’re becoming more effective at helping students who need a little more time and support to cross the finish line,” Cassellius said.