12/30/2014 09:25 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

6 Biggest Wins for Education in 2014

2014 was a good year for P-20 education and we experienced some great wins and made huge strides. Let's look back at just a few of these accomplishments:

1. Educational opportunity rises 80 percent since 1970. According to the Historical Report of Opportunity, educational opportunity has escalated by 80 percent since 1970. The Report defines Educational Opportunity as the number of children in preschool, the number of high school students who graduate on time, and the number of adults with an associate's degree or higher. Over the past four decades, Massachusetts improved the most; Nevada, the least.

While Americans should be proud of the educational improvements our country has seen, we need to continue, or even pick up the pace, to ensure people possess the skills required to build a powerful 21st-century workforce. This Report acts as a good reminder to value the importance of education as the pathway to many of life's successes.

2. Top 30 non-profit education schools ranked. Stephen F. Austin State University is at the top of a recently released ranking from the publication Nonprofit Colleges Online that lists the 30 best education schools at nonprofit colleges. The "Students before Profits" award series highlights different college majors at institutions that provide a high-quality education that is also affordable for students. To qualify for the list, colleges and universities had to be regionally accredited, be official "nonprofit" entities, and offer tuition that is lower than typical college rates.

In second place is the University of Washington and Southern Oregon University took third place. Some other names on the list include the University of Florida, Notre Dame College, the University of Massachusetts and Mississippi State University. You can see the full ranking at Nonprofit Colleges Online.

3. Common Core PARCC is scheduled to roll out in six states. Around 5 million students in six states will take the new standardized Common Core test known as PARCC for the first time during the 2014-2015 school year after years of field-testing and controversy amongst parents and educators. PARCC is the test created by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers to align with the new Common Core assessments in English and mathematics. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, or SBAC, is also in charge of developing a different Common Core exam that will debut next spring.

The assessment has ignited debate and skepticism, and there are still many questions about how it will help students and educators. The widespread uncertainty about and fear of the Common Core tests is something I hope will change in the very near future as schools pilot the PARCC. Even though it may have harder requirements, our country should not back away from the new Common Core test. Long term, students will achieve more with the PARCC.

4. High school graduation rates on track for 90 percent by 2020. A new report shows that for the second year in a row, American high schoolers are on track to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by the year 2020. Research for Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic was conducted through a collaboration of researchers from Civic Enterprises, Johns Hopkins University, Alliance for Excellent Education and American's Promise Alliance. In order for graduation rates to reach the lofty 90 percent goal, there needs to be an increase in graduation rate of 1.3 percent every year.

The report cites more streamlined paths to graduation as part of the reason the rates are rising. Issues outside of academics are also mentioned in the report. The report also breaks down some of the disparities between students. While minority groups still tend to have lower graduation rates (76 percent for Hispanic students, 68 percent for African American students, and 85 percent for White students), the grad rate gap is closing. Since 2006, graduation rates for Hispanic students have risen 15 percent and for African American students, the rates have risen 9 percent.

5. U.S. Department of Education tightens reins on for-profit colleges. The U.S. Department of Education is bumping up its regulation of for-profit career colleges, introducing rules that may halt federal funding to institutions that leave students saddled with enormous debt that they are unable to repay. Students at for-profit schools default on federal loans at a higher rate than students at traditional public colleges: over 19% after three years, compared with less than 13% at public institutions. The efforts by Obama's administration shows that federal and state authorities are ramping up their examination of the for-profit college industry, which includes colleges such as the University of Phoenix and Everest College and ITT Technical Institute.

Many for-profit colleges charge a hefty price, yet target low-income consumers, resulting in students who have massive loans to repay and few job prospects. Better regulation of these schools will hopefully lead to more affordable options for students and better end results.

6. No Child Left Behind waivers extended to 2018. In November, the Department of Education released a letter stating the new guidelines for securing waivers for No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's education reform law, for three or even four more years. The waivers stop states from being tied to the rigorous expectations of Bush-led Adequate Yearly Progress, but in turn, each state must adhere to education reforms encouraged by the Obama administration. The DOE informed chief state school officers that they would be eligible to apply to renew their waivers through the 2017-2018 school year.

The Bush-era law has been due an update since 2007. In 2012, the administration began granting waivers to state if they met certain requirements such as adopting college- and career- ready standards and developing teacher and principal evaluation systems based largely on how much students learn. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from No Child Left Behind, which allow them to forego certain accountability requirements in exchange for implementing education reforms backed by the Obama administration.

Some education advocacy groups were pleased with the emphasis placed on ensuring states have a plan to improve student achievement for all groups of students -- including students with disabilities, those from low-income homes and English language learners -- and prohibiting states from giving schools high scores on state accountability reports if they have large achievement gaps. The requirements also sparked some widespread criticism across the political spectrum. Still, the waivers are a step in the right direction and reward the right behavior from states when it comes to student achievement.

What were the biggest wins for P-20 education in 2014? What did I miss?