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The Topline: Graduation rates and chronic absenteeism


The Topline: Graduation rates and chronic absenteeism

Apr 01, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Christopher Ingraham
The Topline: Graduation rates and chronic absenteeism
Getty images.

Welcome to The Topline, a weekly roundup of the big numbers driving the Minnesota news cycle, as well as the smaller ones that you might have missed. This week: high school graduation rates; chronic absenteeism in the post-COVID era; brisk business for piano recyclers; and the fate of an extremely large fish.

High school graduation rates hold steady

A little over 83% of Minnesota high school seniors graduated in 2023, a rate that’s virtually unchanged from the prior year, according to Department of Education data released last week. Race and poverty remain major predictors of who graduates high school and who doesn’t.

Nearly 90% of white students graduated, for instance, compared to 72% of Black students and 61% of Indigenous students. The graduation rate among students eligible for free or reduced price meals stood at 72%. 

English language learners had one of the lowest graduation rates at just 63%.

News outlets have made some noise over tiny, fraction-of-a-percentage-point fluctuations in the statewide graduation rate from year to year. This is basically just statistical noise, the small random variations that happen in any dataset over time. 

The Star Tribune, for instance, did an exhaustive analysis of why the reported rate dropped 0.3% from 2022 to 2023 and found that it was basically due to a spreadsheet error affecting the classification of a couple hundred students (out of tens of thousands of high school seniors statewide).

It’s nice to live in a state where the public services run so smoothly that the paper of record devotes extensive resources to ferreting out what amounts to a data entry problem. As opposed to, say, a place like Florida, where they’re threatening teachers with felonies just for doing their jobs.

Chronic school absenteeism more than doubles since COVID

Elsewhere in school news, the New York Times reports that more than a quarter of American students were chronically absent during the 2022-2023 school year, meaning they missed more than 10% of the school year. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, by contrast, the chronic absenteeism rate was just 13%.

Education experts suspect that absenteeism is a major factor in the school learning loss that’s been observed since COVID. As with the graduation rates above, race and income are major contributing factors, with poor (32%) and majority nonwhite (30%) districts having much higher absenteeism rates than rich (19%) and majority white (22%) ones.

In Minnesota, just under 70% of students attended school at least 90% of the time during the 2022 to 2023 school year. Some struggling districts have staggeringly low attendance rates: less than half of Minneapolis public school kids attend school regularly, for instance, and at the majority-Indigenous Red Lake public school district just 12.4% of students regularly attend.

Elsewhere, the conservative Center of the American Experiment reports that Minnesota public school enrollment fell again for the 2023-2024 school year, while homeschooling increased by 10%

Minnesotans trash hundreds of pianos every year

The Star Tribune has an interesting story on the hundreds of pianos — many of them a hundred years old or more — thrown out by Minnesotans every year. “There are more pianos than people who want pianos,” as one restorer put it glumly.

In 1923, for instance, Americans purchased over 350,000 pianos for their homes. In 2022, by contrast, only 34,000 non-electric pianos were sold.

Pianos are durable, and many of the 350,000 sold in the early 20th century are still collecting dust in homes across the country. Weighing up to a half ton or more, they can be extremely hard to relocate. 

Some companies specialize in finding new homes for unwanted pianos that are still in good condition, and people in search of the instruments can often find them listed for free on Facebook Marketplace. The only typical requirement: you have to haul it away yourself.

Should the lake sturgeon receive federal protection?

The Grand Forks Herald reports on a looming potential conflict between conservationists and sport fisherman: this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service must decide whether the lake sturgeon should receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The case for protection is a simple one, according to the Center for Biological Diversity: overfishing at the dawn of the 20th century drove down populations of the massive fish by 99%, and dam construction, habitat loss, and degradations in water quality have further threatened the fish that remain. The animal is currently listed as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a non-governmental organization that advises governments on conservation issues.

But Minnesota efforts to bring back the sturgeon population have been successful enough that the state now has a catch-and-release season for the fish, as well as a limited harvest in certain northern waters. The Department of Natural Resources, for instance, estimates that the population of sturgeon longer than 40 inches in Rainy River and parts of Lake of the Woods increased from 17,000 in 1989 to 92,000 in 2014.

Some northern Minnesota resorts now rely on the spring sturgeon fishing season to bridge the gap between winter ice fishing and the regular summer tourist season, and they’re worried about the effects on their bottom line if the fish receives federal protection.

Among the options being weighed by federal authorities is extending different levels of protection to different geographical subpopulations of the sturgeon. 

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