Graduation rate hits new high in California

The graduation rate in California inched above 80 percent last year, the highest level in state history, officials announced Monday.

But the numbers were tempered somewhat by a new report that suggests that progress in improving the national graduation rate might be lost if California does not continue to make significant gains.

The national graduation rate reached 80 percent – also a new high – last year and is on pace to reach 90 percent by 2020, said the report by America’s Promise Alliance, a foundation founded in 1997 by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Yet that national goal – reiterated in a speech Monday by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan – hinges largely on continuing progress in California, the most populous state, the report said.

“The nation cannot reach its 90 percent goal without California,” said the report. “Fourteen percent – 6.2 million – of the nation’s total student cohort live in California, as do 20 percent of the country’s low-income cohort. It is one of 23 states projected to have significant enrollment growth by 2021.”

“… California,” the report continues, “will need to graduate a total of 440,000 more students – 300,000 of those from low-income families – by 2020 if the state is to obtain a 90 percent graduation rate.”

Some 397,871 students – 80.2 percent of California high school seniors – graduated last year, according to the latest figures from the California Department of Education. The number was an increase of 1.3 percentage points over the previous year and continued an upward trend in graduation rates since the state began tracking individual student progress in 2009.

Graduation rates of African-American and Latino students also continue to climb, the numbers show, even though their overall graduation rates lag behind those of white and Asian-American students.

The graduation rate among black students was 68 percent, up 1.9 percentage points from the previous year; among Latinos, the rate was 75 percent, up 1.7 percentage points. By comparison, Asian-American students posted a 92 percent graduation rate, a 0.5 percent increase; while the graduation rate for white students was 88 percent, an increase of 1 percentage point.

The number of students dropping out of high school also is decreasing, the numbers show. Of students who started high school in 2009-10, 12 percent dropped out – down 1.5 percentage points from the previous year.

The numbers show that the state is making strides in closing the achievement gap, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in praising schools and districts for putting more emphasis on graduating students.

“We know it’s a huge disadvantage not to have a high school diploma,” he said.

And while he hadn’t seen the America’s Promise report and couldn’t comment on it specifically, Torlakson acknowledged that he’d like to see more year-over-year growth in graduation rates.

“I believe that goal is attainable,” he said. “ … I believe we can speed it up.”

The state is putting a new emphasis on graduation rates and ensuring that students graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in college and careers, Torlakson said.

A new focus on curbing absenteeism, as well as a new law requiring that the Academic Performance Index for schools incorporate graduation rates, are pushing much of the change, Torlakson said.  While a state committee is still working out the details of how to incorporate the graduation rate, as well as additional measures of college and career preparation, into the API, Torlakson said an increasing number of career programs at schools, which blend academics with real world word experience, are keeping students in school, engaged in their studies, and putting them on a path toward graduation and college. And the Local Control Funding Formula for schools is directing more resources to campuses with high numbers of low-income students, helping direct money where it is needed.

The national report also gives California credit for improvements, singling out investments in after-school programs and programs for English learners, the stronger focus on college and career readiness, and the Local Control Funding Formula as “the building blocks” for student success.

“This work must continue in order to propel graduation outcomes forward in the nation’s largest state and the nation as a whole,” the report said.

The trends in California have been positive, but sustaining those efforts may become harder, said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The initial pushes may have reached “low-hanging fruit,” Rumberger said, such as students who need to make up a few credits or who are in danger of flunking a course or two.

“That could be the caution note about it,” Rumberger said. “Further improvements may be harder to come by because we have to do more to get those kids” who are further behind, or who need much more targeted programs or academic interventions to graduate.

Rumberger said his feelings are mixed on whether the state can reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.

“We are doing some good things,” he said. “The big unknown is whether we can just make school better generally and graduation rates will just come along, or whether we need to target programs specifically at things like dropout prevention. I’m in the latter group. We need specialized support” for kids struggling with significant challenges that present barriers to graduation, such as problems at home, violence in their community, or gang pressures.

“My observation is we’re not doing enough in that area,” he said.

Michelle Maitre covers college and career readiness. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @michelle_maitre. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

Filed under: College & Careers, College Readiness, Data, Local Control Funding Formula, Reforms

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9 Responses to “Graduation rate hits new high in California”

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  1. Richard Soto on Apr 29, 2014 at 6:44 pm04/29/2014 6:44 pm

    • 000

    Did they count the entering 9th grade class, for example go back to 2010 to see who started and followed them for 4 years. How many of them did they send off to Adult Schools or other continuation high schools to get them off their rosters. As an adult school counselor I know how districts have learned to cover their tracks to make the scores look good, and then share how they are doing it with other districts. And then they take adult school money away from adult school and use the money and our space for regular schools.

  2. Kim on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:29 am04/29/2014 11:29 am

    • 000

    How come no one is talking about the affect that special education exemptions from passing the CAHSEE may be having on graduation rates? I can’t remember exactly how long that has been in effect but it would be interesting to look into.

    And in regards to career/college ready, what does it mean to graduate students who get many D’s? Are they really college/career ready? Or just a high school graduate (who then needs remediation if they move on to post-secondary education)?

  3. CarolineSF on Apr 29, 2014 at 8:21 am04/29/2014 8:21 am

    • 000

    This report must be startling to the vast number of people who inaccurately believe that the U.S. high school graduation rate has fallen from some ideal high in the shining past (due to the enormous amount of false, misleading and, yes, malicious information out there).

    It seems fairly evident that the increase is the result of a cultural shift. It was within my memory that poor and working-class kids largely weren’t expected (by their families and cultures, not just mean educators) to graduate; they were often expected to go to work as soon as they were old enough to leave school. The culture is changing that.


    • Jennifer Bestor on Apr 30, 2014 at 12:37 pm04/30/2014 12:37 pm

      • 000

      All the data I’ve seen show that the US high school graduation rate was at a high in 1969 of about 78%, then fell steadily through the 1970’s, then climbed slowly until the early 1990’s, then took another decade hit, then began to climb again:

      Are you disputing that? I realize there have been many ways to manipulate the data over the years — and that the vulnerable Hispanic population was much lower in the 1970’s, thus skewing the data — but it seems to me that there was a hopeful past when high-school graduation was assumed (along with smallpox and polio eradication).

      • CarolineSF on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:03 pm04/30/2014 2:03 pm

        • 000

        Based on the fact that there are different ways to measure, that directly conflicts with what I’ve seen many times over the years. Definitely the notion that high-school graduation was assumed in the past is a myth, however. I was in high school in 1969 (graduated in 1971) and can tell you that for certain. There was no such thing as a “stay in school” campaign, and many families didn’t expect their kids to graduate; many did expect them to drop out and go to work.

      • Gary Ravani on Apr 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm04/30/2014 4:58 pm

        • 000

        I believe you may be referencing SAT scores the were high up to the mid-60s and then dropped slightly through the 70s due to the influx of students from SES groups who had not previously attempted to go to college began participating in the test. This phenomenon is well discussed in what is called the Sandia Study/Report. Very interesting reading!

        Good information can be found at the US Census Bureau “Educational Attainment in the US: 2009″ which indicates the % of the population that had completed HS (or college) rose at a very steady rate from 1940 (@ -30% completion) to around 1980 (@ around 80+%). The rate of increase then flattens to around 2000 where it dips and then surges again around 2009. This is “attainment,” which does include GEDs.

        It is interesting to see a parallel between HS attainment and the growth of the US middle-class in size and median income in post WWII America. There was also the full flowering of the New Deal and then a “War on Poverty.” As incomes began to flatten, in concert with the decline in union membership and a dismantling of the social safety net beginning in the 1980s, so does a decline occur in the “growth” of the educational attainment rate.

        I believe that what was what Caroline was referring to: A myth about superior school performance and educational attainment in some “golden age'” of yore. As the census report shows, HS and college attainment was possible for only about a quarter of the population in the 1940s, hit the 50% mark in the 1950s, and has been going up, at least to some degree, ever since.

        • Floyd Thursby on May 1, 2014 at 2:58 am05/1/2014 2:58 am

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          Gary, you reference poverty, but what do you think about the recent book ‘Triple Package’ by Jed Rubenstein and Amy Chua. They show some cultures do great even if poor. Asians, Cubans, Persians, Nigerians, of course Jewish, Russian, etc.

          I don’t think poverty prevents doing well in school but the attitude that goes with it, taking a job too quickly, too much TV, not enough time studying, TV shows instead of novels, an anti-intellectual, anti-school attitude, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, short-term thinking, etc.

          When you see examples of low income people who behave the same as upper class people in terms of low divorce rates, weekend and summer studying, obsession with grades and testing, focus on habits, low TV, low drugs, etc., you get the same results.

          The focus should be on getting all families to obsessively focus on hours studied, GPA, reading, academics, etc. I believe anyone can do it if they are obsessively focused. But you can’t go half way. Just having a field trip to a musueum and a change in a test won’t do it. You really have to go all out 100%.

  4. Paul Muench on Apr 29, 2014 at 6:46 am04/29/2014 6:46 am

    • 000

    Are districts already shifting resources to focus on graduation rates even before API”s are calculated based on that measure? Last I knew the weight of graduation rates on future API’s is still to be determined, true?


    • Floyd Thursby on Apr 30, 2014 at 9:09 pm04/30/2014 9:09 pm

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      The new API will be more whitewashed and less meaningful. I consider the average test score to be most important. Math, reading, they should add in science and social studies knowledge. Not how clean the front yard is or how children feel. Studies have shown smarter people feel less smart, richer people feel poorer, etc. Tests cut past the BS. The SAT is the closest thing we have to a morally neutral measure of human goodness. API results showed which schools are most effective. They should have been published for teachers too. Then we would be able to see definitively that some teachers are way better than others, even adjusting for demographics.

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