For the third year in a row, Minnesota lags the rest of the country in on-time graduation for students of color.
Fewer than 60 percent of the state's black and Hispanic students graduate in four years, according to an MPR News analysis of the most recent federal data on state graduation rates, from the 2012-13 school year. The rate for the state's Native American students is the second worst in the nation at 49 percent.
Minnesota has the worst or second-worst graduation rates among reporting states in all four non-white student categories. No other state is in the bottom five in all four groups, and only Oregon comes close with three races in the bottom five.
Those rates belie the glowing news that many Minnesotans are accustomed to hearing about the state's students, who overall consistently score near the top in national reading and math tests and college entrance exams like the ACT.
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"This isn't so much about these young people failing," said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who blames a systemic lack of attention to the performance of students of color. "We're failing them."
When it comes to graduating on time, Minnesota ranks in the middle of the pack with just shy of 79.5 percent of all students graduating in four years. For Asian-American students the on-time graduation rate is 77.7 percent.
While the rates for minority students are abysmal, 85 percent of white students graduate on time.
The state's graduation rate is one of the starkest examples of Minnesota's persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color. In part, that's because Minnesota has tougher graduation requirements than many other states, said Brenda Cassellius, the state's education commissioner.
But she said that shouldn't be an excuse.
"We know in Minnesota that we hadn't done a good job of paying attention to the gap for many, many years," Cassellius said.
For years, no one knew how Minnesota's graduation numbers truly compared nationally because the data was spotty and unreliable.
Only in the past few years has the federal government required all states to use the same formula to tally their rate, one that accounts for students moving in and out of districts.
With all states on that standard measurement since the 2010-11 school year, Minnesota has had a clearer view of its troubling graduation gap.
Still, some question whether national rankings are a fair gauge of how well states are doing relative to each other given their vastly different graduation requirements.
"It's actually rather remarkable to look at the diploma requirements across the country and realize what it takes to earn a diploma varies significantly," said Alissa Peltzman, vice president for state policy at Achieve, a nonpartisan education reform organization that helps states raise academic standards. "It's unfortunately not sufficient or meaningful to simply consider graduation rates in comparing student outcomes and preparation across the country."
According to Achieve, Minnesota, 22 other states and the District of Columbia offer students a diploma that proves they are fully prepared for college or a career.
However Minnesota compares to other states, low graduation rates for students of color have a ripple effect, said Mariani, executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. He and other education experts are concerned because college — and many jobs — are off limits for students without a diploma.
The economic consequences continue from there, said Michael Rodriguez, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.
"When kids drop out of high school their employment opportunities decrease dramatically, their income opportunities decrease dramatically," said Rodriguez, who has studied the phenomenon. "They're less likely to engage in good health, and then they become parents and then those children grow up in high poverty."
Not only does that hurt individuals, it's a drag on the entire state economy, he said.
Students of color represent a growing part of the state's future work force, and they'll need high school diplomas and post-secondary training, said Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of Minnesota's Office of Higher Education.
"We really have to up our efforts there so we don't stunt economic growth by lacking the workforce to do the work," he said.
Pogemiller wants to see an expansion of programs across the state that strive to keep students of color on track toward graduation.
The effort by Cloquet Public Schools has included tutors for Native American students in the district's high school, middle school and two elementary schools.
Each school building in the district, where 20 percent of students are American Indian, has a family liaison. That helps keep parents connected to their children's schools.
"Our students really need to feel connected within our school," said Tara Graves, Cloquet's American Indian Education director. "They need to feel a part of it. A way of doing that is to make sure that they're seeing themselves in that curriculum."
Teachers in the district have done that by introducing Native American literature to students just learning to read, or pairing high school students with mentors from the community.
Cloquet's four-year graduation rate for Native American students is 59 percent, 10 percentage points higher than the state average for that group.
Advocates of early childhood education say such programs could be the key to helping more students graduate on time — if the state can ensure that every three- and four-year-old from a low-income family attends preschool. But that would cost about $150 million in additional education funding a year.
"There are some good programs in the later years, but to get at the root problem, to do it efficiently, you've got to start at the beginning," said Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Rolnick said research has shown that students from low-income families who attend preschool are better prepared for kindergarten and go on to do better in later grades.
State education officials aim to increase the overall four-year graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, with no student groups lower than 85 percent. If the new state data on graduation rates for the 2013-14 school year expected from the Minnesota Department of Education next week follows recent trends, the rates for all students likely will inch up.
So far, however, that marginal progress has not been enough to move the state's graduation rates for students of color from the bottom of the national list.