The number of high schools with chronically low graduation rates has fallen in Arizona and New Mexico, according to a study released Monday by a group of education organizations.
The two states have also increased the percentage of fourth- and eighth-grade students who can read proficiently. And more students in both states are taking advanced placement tests than several years ago.
However, the report shows Arizona, New Mexico and other western states are lagging behind when it comes to improving their graduation rates. In fact, the report puts Arizona and New Mexico in a group of 10 states that had lower rates in 2009 than they did seven years earlier.
The report ranks Arizona and New Mexico fifth and sixth, respectively, when it comes to childhood poverty. The states also have high populations of Hispanic and American Indian students, who typically fall below the national average when it comes to graduating. And there has been an influx of English-learning students.
"There are school districts that are trying," said Colleen Wilber, a spokeswoman for America's Promise Alliance, one of the groups behind the report. "They've got to adjust to all of that."
Arizona's graduation rate dropped from 74.7 percent in 2002 to 72.5 percent in 2009, according to the report. New Mexico's rate went from 67.4 percent to 64.8 percent.
The goal of the organizations is to boost the national rate — 75.5 percent in 2009 — to 90 percent by 2020. The battle to reach that level will be won or lost in states like Arizona and New Mexico, the groups said.
State education officials pointed to their own graduation statistics, which show rates gradually increasing for three consecutive years.
Between 2008 and 2010, figures from the New Mexico Public Education Department show rates climbing from just over 60 percent to 67.3 percent.
Education Secretary Hannah Skandera said New Mexico is in line for more improvements thanks to legislation approved in 2011 that revamps part of the education system.
Now, school progress is linked to a letter grade based on standardized tests, the growth of student performance in reading and mathematics, and other factors such as graduation rates and college and career readiness.
Skandera said the system makes schools more accountable and helps parents understand where their child's school can improve.
New Mexico's other push is also something stressed by the report's authors: ensuring students can read proficiently before leaving third grade. The reading initiative is something Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has been promoting in meetings with education and business leaders around the state.
"As we look at what creates real change in high school, we have to acknowledge that if a student can't read by the end of third grade, they're four times more likely to drop out," Skandera said. "One of the things we're doing is investing early — kindergarten through third grade."
Skandera acknowledged that New Mexico is "new" when it comes to reform, but there's no reason some changes can't happen quickly.
In Arizona, the education department in 2008 adopted a program for building education and career action plans for each student.
The department also conducts annual dropout prevention conferences for teachers and principals at every grade level.
Ryan Ducharme, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, pointed to the programs as reasons the state's graduation rate has improved in recent years.
"It's been a top priority. We've really been working hard to do something about it," he said.
According to the most recent data available from Arizona, graduation rates increased from 73.4 percent in 2007 to 76.1 percent in 2009.
In the report, researchers point to increases in economic benefits when graduation rates are high. That link isn't lost on state officials.
"When we talk about the economy, there's a three-prong stool — what are your taxes like, are you business friendly and the third piece is whether you have an education system that is creating a workforce prepared and ready," Skandera said. "And the answer for New Mexico has been 'No,' but it's an absolute commitment of ours to make that answer 'Yes.' We're on our way."