California education officials Monday released numbers showing high school dropout rates down slightly compared to last year and graduation rates up, continuing years of small improvement - although the Los Angeles Unified School District still trails the state.
The statewide graduation rate reached 80.2 percent for the 2012–2013 academic year - the highest it's been since California began keeping these kinds of records two decades ago. The dropout rate dipped to 11.6 percent last year, according to the state Department of Education.
The numbers don't add up to 100 percent because there are students - such as fifth year seniors and special education students - who are classified as neither graduates nor dropouts.
“I’m pleased to report that our positive momentum continues to build and over the last three years it’s been growing in terms of graduation rates about a percent and a half per year,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a conference call with reporters.
The Los Angeles Unified School District’s graduation rate last year was 67.9 percent - up 1.3 percentage points from the previous year - and its dropout rate was 17.3, six percentage points higher than the state average and nearly five percentage points higher than the county average. Still, that was a three percentage point improvement L.A. Unified's drop out rate the year before.
L.A. Unified's gains have been incremental since 2009-2010, when the state began using a new, more accurate student data tracking system. In that school year, the district's dropout rate was 24.7 percent and its graduation rate was 62.4 percent.
Statewide, student graduation rates improved by 1.3 percent and drop out rates by 1.5 percent this year over last.
Torlakson pointed out the gains came despite any fallout from deep budget cuts during the recent recession. He credited more focus by teachers and school administrators on getting a high school diploma in students’ hands.
“Bringing in education technology into our schools in an engaging, meaningful way, programs like our after school concentration on low income students and English Learners,” are working, Torlakson said.
He also credited the Quality Education Investment Act, a $2.9 billion pot of money that’s going to hundreds of the state’s lowest performing schools. The payout settles a lawsuit filed by CTA against Governor Schwarzenegger in 2005 for underspending on schools.
However, state numbers also reveal disparities. California students identifed as "English learners" are still trailing significantly, with a dropout rate of 21.9 percent. Only 62.7 percent graduate.
“We’re not reaching the most hard to reach populations,” UC Irvine education researcher Gil Conchas said, “those kids that had perhaps been in and out of the criminal justice system, those kids that are transient, homeless.”
Last year, the Governor began a change in how public schools are funded, earmarking money to underprivileged and struggling student populations, including English learners.
But Conchas also said efforts to break up large, impersonal high school campuses and increased funding for early childhood education programs have improved student achievement.
“We know that our high school kids are bored and this effort has led to a tremendous improvement in the engagement and ultimate success of our student population,” Conchas said.
One school administrator said improvement in graduation rates is good, but he has higher aspirations.
“It’s one thing to say that you’re a high school graduate but where are you going to go from high school?” Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matsuda said.
He said his district is making an effort to infuse classroom curriculum with job skills and college prep learning that will help students with life after high school. And that, he said, will improve graduation rates.
According to the California Department of Education, these are the average graduation and drop out rates for Southern California Counties:
- Los Angeles County: 77.0 graduation rate, 12.7 dropout rate
- Orange County: 87.3 graduation rate, 7.5 dropout rate
- Riverside County: 83.8 graduation rate, 10.1 dropout rate
- San Bernardino County: 87.5 graduation rate, 9.9 dropout rate
- San Diego County: 79.6 graduation rate, 9.2 dropout rate
- Ventura County: 82.4 graduation rate, 10.7 dropout rate
The chart below shows the increase or decrease in graduation rates in percentage points for districts in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties with more than 1,000 students in the cohort.