AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas and five other states have tied for the nation's third-best high school graduation rate, according to preliminary U.S. Department of Education data released Tuesday.
Under a new system that makes it easier to compare results across the country, the state posted a four-year graduation rate of 86 percent for the Class of 2011, the same as Tennessee, New Hampshire, Indiana, Nebraska and North Dakota. That was a single percentage point behind Vermont and Wisconsin, and Iowa led the nation with 88 percent.
"This state-by-state comparison confirms what Texas educators have been saying for a long time. Our public schools are delivering a high quality education and our students are having great success," Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement.
Williams added: "There is more work to be done to raise the rates even higher. But let's give credit where credit is due."
The Department of Education said nationwide comparisons were previously unreliable, but "the new, common metric can be used by states, districts and schools to promote greater accountability."
The national numbers were consistent with August data from the Texas Education Agency, which reported that the four-year graduation rate statewide had reached an all-time high of 85.9 percent for the Class of 2011. Texas' previous on-time record was the Class of 2010's 84.3 percent.
State officials began reporting graduation rates in a way that simplified national data comparisons several years ago, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state education agency. She said this year marked the first time the rest of the country followed suit.
"We're just ecstatic," Ratcliffe said.
When broken down by ethnicity, the nationwide totals yielded more good news for Texas, which ranked first in the country among white students with a 92 percent high school graduation rate, and Asian students with a 95 percent graduation rate.
Among black students, Texas' graduation rate of 81 percent tied with Montana for the highest rate.
The state was second among graduation rates for Hispanics, with its 82 percent trailing only Maine's 87 percent. Texas also saw its children with disabilities post a 77 percent graduation rate, behind only South Dakota's 84 percent.
Texas finished second in graduation rates for students from economically disadvantaged families, posting an 84 percent graduation rate that outpaced all states but South Dakota's 86 percent.
The only below-average measure was for limited-English-proficient students, who had a statewide graduation rate of 58 percent, or 26th in the nation. Vermont led America with 82 percent.
The preliminary national data comes amid a sweeping school finance lawsuit where school districts responsible for educating three-fourths of the state's 5 million-plus students have sued, claiming Texas' procedure for funding public schools is so inefficient and inequitable that it violates the state constitution.
The case centers on the state Legislature's 2011 cuts of $5.4 billion in funding to public schools and education grant programs, which came as Texas implements a new, more difficult standardized testing regime known as STAAR, and as the state's booming population has seen enrollment grow by an average of 80,000 students per year.
Much of that growth has been fueled by low-income students and those who need additional English-language instruction, which districts note are more costly to educate — especially when they have to pass tougher standardized tests.
But Williams said Tuesday that more-strenuous standards may help explain Texas' graduation-rate gains.
"We think, in part, the state's school accountability system has helped shine a light on this issue over the past 15 years and focused greater attention on raising the graduation rate," he said.