PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s high school graduation rate hit 85% for the first time in 2016, mirroring a slow by steady upward trend for school completion throughout the country over the last decade.

Data released Monday by the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) show 85.3% of the class of 2016 completed high school within four years, while 8.6% of students dropped during the same period.

So what does it all mean? Here’s an overview.

The four-year graduation rate is higher than ever.

It wasn’t that long ago that nearly 25% of students were entering high school but failing to earn their diplomas within four years; the classes of 2009 and 2010 each posted 76% graduation rates. Rhode Island hit 80% for the first time in 2013 and has now reached 85.3%. (The most recent national high school graduation rate – for the 2014-15 school year – was 83.2%.) How did it happen? It’s all about the urbans. The Barringtons and East Greenwiches of the world have consistently posted 90%-plus graduation rates for years, but the state is starting to see big gains in the larger districts. Pawtucket might have the best story of all. In 2009, the city posted a graduation rate of 56%. It’s now at the state average. In Providence, you know Classical is going to compare favorably to nearly every school in the state. But the district’s overall graduation rate has increased 13 percentage points – from 66% to 79% – since 2009. Central Falls saw a steep drop in its graduation rate in 2016, but the city has still gone from a 46% graduation rate in 2009 to 72% in 2016. It helps that state education leaders have embraced credit recovery programs that allow kids who have fallen behind in school catch up to their peers.

Ten schools graduated at least 96% of their students.

Blackstone Academy is tiny, but it packs a punch. Every one of the 40 students who entered the ninth grade during the 2012-13 school year graduated on time. Classical was next at 99.6%. Then it was East Greenwich (98%), Jacqueline M. Walsh School in Pawtucket (97.9%), Exeter-West Greenwich (97.7%), Cranston West (97.4% ), Barrington (96.6%), North Providence High School (96.5%), Beacon Charter High School for The Arts (96.5%) and North Smithfield (96.2%).

Rhode Island still has major achievement gap challenges.

Students of color, kids from low-income families and high schoolers with limited language proficiency still lag behind their peers. While Rhode Island has seen modest improvements in Hispanic student graduation rates in recent years, only 78.6% of those students graduated on time in 2016. Students living in poverty also posted a 78.6% graduation rate. Students who aren’t proficient in English saw a slight drop in their graduation rates in 2016, falling to 76.6%. The graduation rates of students with disabilities increased slightly, from 62% in 2015 to 63.5% in 2016.

A lot of students are dropping out.

The 8.6% dropout rate may not seem that bad, but think about the raw numbers. Of the 10,784 students who started as freshmen in the 2012-13 school year, 897 of them quit before earning a diploma. More than one-third of the dropouts came from two school districts: Providence (234) and Woonsocket (83). On the bright side, 523 students who started school in the 2012-13 school year are still pursuing their diploma this year and 168 have earned a GED.

The student pool has shrunk.

We’ve known Rhode Island public school enrollment has been dropping for several years, but the class of 2015 was the first in recent memory to fall below 11,000 students, and that number dropped to 10,786 for the class of 2016. By comparison, the class of 2009 had 12,657 students.

There are still some red flags.

One common criticism about high school graduation rates across the country is that schools can lower their standards just to make sure more students earn their diploma. This isn’t easy to prove, but we know public officials have raised concerns about social promotion and we know there is real pressure on schools to improve completion rates. One way to analyze the value of a high school diploma is to track how students fare in college. For Rhode Island, those results are mixed. The new U.S. News & World Report ranking of the 50 states places Rhode Island at No. 49 when it comes to two-year college graduation rates, which means it’s taking longer than it should for students to earn their associate degree. While Governor Raimondo’s office would say the cost of school is the primary reason students don’t complete college, it’s also worth noting that hundreds of community college students have to register for remedial courses each year. For four-year colleges, Rhode Island fares better, ranking No. 23 for students who earn their bachelor’s degree within six years of entering school.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan