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The percentage of Indigenous students graduating from high school in British Columbia is higher than ever, but there is still a significant gap between those students and their non-Indigenous peers in getting their diplomas.

The contradiction was highlighted on Tuesday in an audit by the provincial Auditor-General Carol Bellringer that follows up on how the government has dealt with recommendations, in 2015, on doing better for Indigenous students.

That audit four years ago made a dozen recommendations to close the gap, and this week’s follow-up review charts improvements, but still raises concerns.

The newly released review includes a submission from the provincial Education Ministry that says the percentage of Indigenous students achieving Grade 12 completion within six years climbed to 70 per cent in 2017-18 from 62 per cent in 2013-14.

That is “the highest rate ever in the province," the ministry says.

However, Ms. Bellringer finds that the graduation gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is 16 percentage points, down from 24 in 2015.

She notes that the gaps are wider for certain groups of students, including First Nations students who lived on reserves, Indigenous children in government care and those in particular school districts.

Ms. Bellringer writes that the Education Ministry has made progress on all 12 recommendations, including four that have been fully implemented, five likely to be implemented and three that have been the subject of some action.

However, she offers a cautionary note germane to the contradiction of more graduates while gaps remain.

“While there has been improvement, the system is still not supporting Indigenous students to have the same success that non-Indigenous students enjoy," Ms. Bellringer writes.

“The education system has made progress and the gaps are getting smaller, but the ministry needs to continue to work to close the gaps.”

In 2017-18, about 12 per cent of the total B.C. student population self-identified as Indigenous, Ms. Bellringer’s audit says. Of that population, about 7,800 were First Nations students living on reserves.

Deborah Jeffrey, executive director of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, an organization that works to lead policy and advocacy on the file in British Columbia, said on Tuesday that the report is a reminder of the need for further work.

She said the problem includes the “racism of low expectations” afflicting students – a point Ms. Bellringer raised in her 2015 report and defined as the phenomenon of educators and district staff having lower expectations for students based on preconceptions or biases stemming from social attitudes.

Still, she said she can see the prospect of improvement.

“I am absolutely optimistic. First Nations are actively engaged in these conversations,” she said. “We’re poised in 2019 to bring about some much-needed change at a much faster pace.”

Asked about the contradiction, the office of Education Minister Rob Fleming replied with a statement that said that the government is intent on further closing gaps.

He said Indigenous content has been built into all grades and subjects in B.C.'s new curriculum, and there have been new investments in Indigenous teacher training seats at B.C. universities.

There has also been a commitment to equitable education for First Nations students no matter where they live, he said.

“It’s inspiring to see how quickly Indigenous students respond when we begin to bring down barriers to their success,” said the statement.

“We know there is more work to do and I am committed to working with our education partners to continue to improving learning outcomes and school experiences for Indigenous students.”

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