Bangor High School's drive-through graduation ceremony in June 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The gulf between the high school graduation rates of male and female students reached its widest point since 2014.

The widening graduation gap came at the end of the second year during which the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted schooling and as the overall rate of Maine students completing high school within four years dropped to its lowest point in the last six years.

Some 88.62 percent of female high school students graduated from Maine schools within four years in 2021, compared with 83.66 percent of male students, a gulf of almost 5 percentage points, according to recent data from the Maine Department of Education.

It was the biggest gap between male and female seniors’ graduation rates since 2014, when 88.35 percent of female students finished high school compared with 82.89 percent of males, working out to a 5.46 percentage point gap.

Between 2017 and 2020, the percentage of males graduating from high school within four years lagged behind female graduates by an average of 4.3 points.

Graduation rates among male students had steadily increased in the last five years, reaching a high of 85.5 percent in 2019, before dropping to 85.25 percent in 2020 and then 83.66 percent in 2021.

Overall state graduation rates in Maine also fell last year, from 87.4 percent in 2020 to 86.07 percent in 2021. Last year’s graduation rate was the lowest since 2016, and graduation rates overall had generally risen steadily over the past decade.

The gender gap for high school graduates dovetails with a disparity between the number of women and men entering higher education, said Duke Albanese, a former Maine education commissioner and now senior policy associate for Great Schools Partnership, a Portland nonprofit that works with schools on implementing education reforms.

Remote learning also presented a challenge. While students overall struggled with online schooling, male students in particular faced difficulties, Albanese said.

“If it doesn’t perk some sort of interest, then there’s a complacency in learning, and they’re not energized,” Albanese said. “What worries me is that you’re not seeing the potential, or the true abilities of these students.”

Students from lower income backgrounds also did not fare well.

Some 76.57 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated from high school within four years in 2021, almost 2 percentage points less than in 2020, when 78.92 percent graduated. Their graduation rate was almost 10 percentage points behind the state’s overall four-year graduation rate for 2021.  

The proportion of economically disadvantaged kids who finished high school within four years has steadily dropped in the last nine years, from 2012’s rate of 81.37 percent.

A Department of Education spokesperson said the state agency was committed to addressing educational inequities among Maine students, but that the graduation rate declines didn’t factor in students who chose alternative pathways to completing high school, or those who took more than four years to graduate.

“Alternate pathways, such as adult education programs, are valuable and valid paths that also offer students who need it the flexibility to balance work with their education,” Marcus Mrowka said.

The Department of Education has supported “these different pathways for students as well as a whole student approach that addresses not just the academic needs of our students but also their social, emotional and health needs,” Mrowka said.

There are some outliers to Maine’s overall decline in its graduation rate.

While Brewer and Bangor high schools reported graduation rate declines between 2020 and 2021, Hermon High and Hampden Academy saw their graduation numbers edge upward as students reported increased engagement as they returned to the classroom.

Hermon High’s graduation rate rose almost four percentage points, from 91.06 percent in 2020 to 94.96 percent in 2021, while Hampden Academy’s grew from 92.04 percent in 2020 to 94.27 percent in 2021.

Hermon High School has taken a progressive approach to keeping kids on track to graduate by implementing several programs aimed at kids who plan to attend college, those who plan to enter the military, and those enrolled in technical education courses at the United Technologies Center in Bangor, Hermon Superintendent Jim Chasse said.

“We’re attracting younger families that are starting families, and there are some adjustments to be made when you have such a growing enrollment,” he said, noting that Hermon’s “human footprint” has grown, and with it, high school enrollment.

The town’s high school has also used federal COVID relief funds to hire more tutors and devote more resources to supporting students’ academic needs.

“We recently started discussing the possibility of even having an alternative education program anticipating that we might have some students who need some unique programming,” Chasse said, “just to kickstart their education, if the pandemic has left them tired, or less present than we’d like them to be.”

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.