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COLLEGE PARK, MD - MAY 17: Graduates of Bowie State University put messages on their mortarboard hats during the school's graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. First lady Michelle Obama delivered the commencement speech for the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

More students earning diplomas, but is graduation bar high enough?

Thirty-six states saw high school graduation rates rise for the Class of 2014. The gains came on the heels of the country’s record-high graduation rate of 81 percent in 2013.

An updated national graduation rate hasn’t been released yet, but the Department of Education touted this week’s provisional state-level data for showing not only overall graduation gains in a majority of states, but progress in closing the graduation gap between white students and their black or Hispanic classmates in more than half of states.

States have used a uniform method for calculating graduation rates since 2010, and the percent of students earning their diploma in four years has grown each. Some have questioned whether the focus on raising graduation rates has benefited all students.

Earlier this year, NPR and 14 of its member stations investigated how states have achieved those gains. The methods ranged from intensive support for struggling students to easier-to-earn diplomas. This month, Chicago announced it would lower its graduation rate after the local NPR station reported the city had misclassified thousands of dropouts as transfer students.

The easier-to-earn diplomas highlighted in NPR’s reporting are widespread. A report from Achieve, an education advocacy group that helped develop the Common Core Standards, concluded 39 states offer at least one type of high school diploma that doesn’t require four years of grade-level English and three years of grade-level math. That’s the baseline the group sets for students to be college- and career-ready.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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