Graduation rate hits new high in California

April 28, 2014

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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