Tennessee’s high school graduation rate has declined again, according to new data released Tuesday. 

About 88.7% of public school students in the Class of 2021 graduated on time this spring, down almost a full percentage point from 2020, according the state education department. 

The rate also fell by the slightest of margins the prior year. That decline, however, came after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the state to relax graduation requirements soon after the virus emerged — and likely would have been more pronounced without the emergency rule.

While the 1 percentage point slide over two years may not sound like much, it pulls back on nearly a decade of hard-fought, incremental increases totaling more than 4 percentage points under an initiative prioritized by former Gov. Bill Haslam. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, Tennessee’s graduation rate peaked at 89.7%.

The pandemic’s impact on graduation rates will become clearer in the years to come and will hinge on how well students and schools recover from the disruption. Other data points to reason for concern. For example, state test scores from this spring showed a dramatic reversal of Tennessee’s previous academic gains. 

In a statement, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn vowed to improve graduation rates with new learning initiatives that already have begun. Tennessee launched summer camps and tutoring programs this year and also provides workshops to prepare high school students to take the ACT college preparatory test.

“The department was prepared for the negative impacts of the pandemic on our statewide graduation rate, but we are confident that ... we can resume the upward trajectory in graduation rate and ensure we are preparing Tennessee students for success,” Schwinn said.

Last year, overall graduation numbers stayed steady nationally. However, the number of graduates immediately enrolling in college declined sharply, especially interrupting the college plans of students who graduated from high-poverty schools, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Just as with Tennessee’s first pandemic test results, this year’s graduation data showed higher-than-average declines among students who are considered the most vulnerable.

The graduation rate dropped by almost 2 percentage points to 80.8% for students who are considered economically disadvantaged — and to 71.3% for students with disabilities.

Three of Tennessee’s four urban school districts saw declines, while Memphis-based Shelby County Schools stayed steady at 77.7%. Rates dropped by 1.5 percentage points to 85.5% for Hamilton County Schools; 1.2 percentage points to 81.1% for Metro Nashville Public Schools; and 1 percentage point to 90% for Knox County Schools.

But there were a few bright spots involving the 63,283 graduates in Tennessee’s Class of 2021.

The state reported 37 districts improved their graduation rates from 2020 to 2021. And 37 districts saw 95% or more of their high school seniors earn their diplomas within four years.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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