Minnesota's high school graduation rate rebounded slightly in 2022 after taking a dip during the pandemic the year before, state data released Tuesday shows.

That increase was fueled largely by the gains made by Black and American Indian students and pupils who identify as two or more races. Each of those groups registered year-over-year gains in their four-year graduation rate of about 3 percentage points.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Willie Jett said in a news conference that he wanted to celebrate and acknowledge the "unwavering commitment to excellence" by students and educators.

"I'm just proud of the class of 2022," he said, and later continued, "We certainly have work to do to ensure our graduation rates continue to rise and we will work together toward our goal of ensuring every student graduates from high school equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary for a successful future."

Here are four key takeaways from Minnesota's 2022 high school graduation rates:

Minnesota's four-year graduation rate nears pre-pandemic levels

Nearly 83.6% of Minnesota high schoolers graduated within four years in 2022, a rate slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels and the state's all-time high.

Katie Pekel, executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota, said those gains show school districts used their federal pandemic relief funds well. Many hired tutors to help students catch up. Others reassessed their approach to the sequencing of their classes, particularly in subjects like math.

Instead of assuming incoming geometry students had fully mastered the elements of algebra, teachers assessed what students needed to get on track.

"I found school districts were really looking at their own internal data and seeing which kids really do need more catch-up," Pekel said.

Racial gaps persist but are narrower than ever

Black students in Minnesota registered their highest graduation rate ever, and those gains have helped narrow a stubborn gap compared with their white peers.

Pekel said she's "hopefully optimistic" that the consistent narrowing of that gap is a sign that districts' investments in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are paying off.

Educators are taking students and their activism more seriously, particularly since the police murder of George Floyd, Pekel said. That's making students more comfortable in the classroom, which in turn translates to better academic achievement.

"I think that this is the first time many educators are really seeing student activism and student voice as a force," Pekel said.

Online academies register highest rates in years

Virtual schools have long registered much lower graduation rates than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. In 2020, Minnesota's online schools saw four-year completion rates hover just over 52%.

By 2022, nearly two-thirds of students enrolled in online academies graduated on time. Pekel said those figures point to the proliferation of virtual offerings among traditional school districts, which typically employ more support staff than online academies do.

The Rochester district, where Pekel's husband is the superintendent, didn't have a virtual academy before the pandemic. But the teachers who work for RPS Online can tap into the district's existing network of social workers, counselors and other support staff.

"By sheer size and proximity to those people, you just have more access to those resources," Pekel said.

Dropout rates near pre-pandemic levels

Minnesota's dropout rate looked better during the pandemic — but, unfortunately, it has risen again.

Pekel said the record low dropout rate in 2020 reflected districts' softer grading and attendance practices as students navigated the most intense parts of the pandemic.

"I think we really did our best to hold harmless," she said. "And the next year, kids were in and out and in and out."

As educators returned to pre-pandemic routines, some students had a hard time adjusting and dropped out. Pekel said: "It's difficult to get that expectation back."

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Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.